Kimberly Schaub is a senior product development scientist who worked most recently with Bulletproof 360, which makes coffee and tea products for its customers in Washington state.
Today, Schaub is the creator and host of the “PeasOnMoss” podcast, which follows her journey from nutritionist to cook to product developer while also looking at the food product development process and those involved in it.
Her career hasn’t exactly taken a straightforward path. After earning a nutritional science degree from Pepperdine University, she went into the U.S. Air Force, where she managed the dining facilities.
“I developed a strong backbone, which was helpful when it comes to the culinary world because each plate of food you’re served represents a piece of effort and soul that some cook, or chef prepared for you,” she recalls. “Sometimes it can be challenging to receive feedback, especially when it comes to new product development. You have to have a stronger backbone to handle some of that feedback, even if you disagree with it.”
Schaub practices what she calls culinology, a term the Research Chefs Association coined years ago. It began as a hybrid of culinary arts and food technology and has since morphed into a blend of culinary arts and food science, which Schaub says is slightly different. But the ethos, she adds, is the same: combining culinary arts cross functionality to create new products.
“Culinology is something the RCA talks about a lot because we sit in a really unique space between the culinary and food technology worlds,” she explains. “And so those of us who work in that category often call ourselves culinologists. The RCA even has a certification program for individuals who want to be recognized for that work.”
But a chance encounter at a soup kitchen steered Schaub toward research and development, and a career as a research chef.
“I think my parents suspect that I’m either actually a spy or not really working. People think that I eat all the time, which is part of it,” she says.
Innovation vs. Iteration
Schaub says most of her work is spent not necessarily on innovation, but iteration.
“Let’s say we’ve decided we’re going to do a vegan cheese snack on a corn chip,” she posits. “That first conversation is where we identify the type of product we want to make. And then I go to the bench and do an initial pass to add a formula and I have you taste it. That’s the innovation piece. All of the work to go from version A to version B. That’s iteration one.”
Iteration two, she adds, is still a lot of bench work that includes sourcing ingredients and having conversations with suppliers and leveraging the accessible raw materials to improve on a concept.
“At that point, you’re spending less time on the bench and more time in meetings trying to figure out how to get the ingredients to make the finished product you’re looking for,” she says.
With ingredients, her conversations with suppliers often focus on whether it’s going to scale properly. It can vary wildly.
“I like to start with the end in mind and identify all the claims we’re looking to meet,” she says. “I mentioned vegan cheese, so non-dairy would be a type of claim we’re going to pursue. I would take that list of claims and talk to the suppliers about how they can fill those requests. We don’t want a surprise either in the supply chain or in the ingredient itself later on. I try to have those conversations upfront with our suppliers.”
Schaub admits that while everyone in her business has probably had at least one bad experience with a supplier, she’s quick to add that, overall, her relationships with suppliers have been positive. After all, they want to stay in business, too. But, she admits, communication – and transparency – could always be better.
“Honestly, having a program where we can all have access to comparable information so we can quickly decide how good a fit a company is as a supplier is the trick,” she says. “Most of the time it’s all kept in our own heads. But there are so many more improvements on the market now for how we can integrate our information better and find each other more quickly.”
New Product Development Roadblocks
It’s expensive to launch a new product – aside from the cost of R&D, companies have to invest in scaled-up manufacturing, packaging, and shelf stocking fees. Despite that, it can be difficult to get feedback from consumers – or would-be consumers – aside from the sales numbers.
Consumer insights can be helpful, Schaub suggests, because it deliberately places the product in the hands of target consumers where companies can get direct feedback on the product. Those types of studies can be expensive as well, but Schaub urges companies, especially smaller ones, to incorporate that research early in the development cycle – before a full-scale rollout.
“A consumer insights study from start to finish would take about a month to plan and a month to execute and hopefully you contacted an organization early enough so they’ve got placeholder dates and then you can send them product. They’ll run the panels for you and then send you data,” she advises. “In a one-month period you can figure out if the consumers have really high purchase intent or if there’s some tweaking needed before you go and produce millions of units of a product that needed relatively minor tweaks and instead of launching something that’s 85 percent of the way there you launch it at 95 percent.”
While conventional wisdom holds that the new product development cycle ranges anywhere between 12 to 18 months, from the end of the first ideation meeting to a product actually hitting the store shelves, Schaub argues that for most startups, that cycle is typically shorter than 12 months.
“The most success I’ve seen is between nine and 12 months,” she says. That being said, she adds that it’s important to get the product as perfect as possible before taking it to market.
But one of the most common pitfalls Schaub sees in the product development process is getting surprised by new information later in the development timeline. She stresses the importance of beginning with the end in mind and addressing surprises as early as possible.
“For example, if you use a specific ingredient that’s sourced from only one country, you have to realize that’s your limiting factor, in that you’re not going to be able to manufacture past the amount of product available to you,” she says. “There are a couple of supply chain and purchasing tricks of the trade as far as buying in advance and committing to certain volumes and knowing your supplier will be able to grow your volumes. That’s probably the biggest thing that causes problems later: knowing you have a solid formula but finding out later that you have an ingredient you can’t buy anymore. Then you have to reformulate. And that’s heartbreaking.”
One of Schaub’s biggest successes has been helping a brand break into a new category.
“When Lundberg hired me to take a well-established brand into the frozen sector, being able to meet the supply chain that feeds that category was my biggest success point because you’re stepping into something new,” she recalls. “You don’t really get to leverage brand reputation in a category they’re not in yet. Getting that opportunity to represent the brand in a positive way was a big success for me.”
Another lesson Schaub’s learned in her career, and heard echoed by guests on her podcast, is to never burn the network bridge with suppliers. Those relationships – even relationships that aren’t as great as others – are the keys to success for good product development, “whether it’s a research chef, an ingredient supplier, or a service provider, those relationships make the biggest difference in their personal careers and in the successes of the brands they represent.”
Chasing, or staying ahead of trends, is another hurdle R&D departments face. What consumer trends are built to last? What niche markets are worth pursuing and can sustain a substantial investment in a new product? There’s a fine line between being ahead of the pack and getting left behind.
“Plant based is very large right now,” she says. “Perhaps vegan is a little bit too niche and off to the side. Maybe blending plant-based with animal-based protein is a good way to go because you’re not cutting out a whole category altogether.”
Schaub advises anyone who wants to do what she does to get a list of organizations to look into and see which ones resonate with them. Examples she offers include RCA and the Institute of Food Technologists.
“I would say your first step to developing your superpower in the industry is get to know the industry,” she says. “Go to the networking events; go to the regional events. They can be free. They could be $25. I would say they’re absolutely worth it. If your company doesn't sponsor a membership into those organizations then paying for the individual events in your area is the next best step and you’ll build relationships from there. Older folks in the industry, like me, like to attend those events and meet the young folks who are coming in and identify the high performers there and then we’ll bring you into the fold.”
When it comes to younger professionals looking for a mentor, Schaub suggests taking someone out for coffee or lunch after meeting them at a networking event. But she points out, be mindful of their time. Sometimes a simple follow-up email is the best approach.
“I think you’d be surprised by how willingly we give each other information,” she says. “We’re all competitors on the shelves, but we’re all friends at the conferences. Mentorship has played a huge role in my life.”
Getting products to market faster demands more efficiency and speed at every stage of new product development. With a single location for all upstream supply chain information and documentation, teams can bring new products to market faster. R&D can quickly research suppliers and ingredients. The regulatory department can address claims, label issues, or any other compliance requirements. Quality can pre-approve ingredients and suppliers, manage the process through approval, and procurement can negotiate price and shipping with suppliers and recommend alternate suppliers if needed. Lastly, suppliers can make sure compliant ingredients seamlessly enter the supply chain with all the required documentation.