Kimberly Schaub is a senior product development scientist who, most recently, worked with Bulletproof 360, a company that makes coffee and tea products.
Today, Kimberly is the creator and host of the PeasOnMoss podcast, which follows her journey from a nutritionist to cook to product developer while also looking at the food product development process and those involved in it. TraceGains caught up with Kimberly to learn more about her career and her approach to product development.
Her career hasn’t 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 is helpful in the culinary world because each meal you prepare represents a piece of effort and soul,” she recalled. “Sometimes, it can be challenging to receive feedback, especially when it comes to new product development. You have to be able to listen to feedback, even if you disagree with it.”
Schaub practices what she calls “culinology,” a term the Research Chefs Association (RCA) 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 unique space between the culinary and food technology worlds,” she explained. “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 recognition 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 a spy or not working. People think that I eat all the time, which is part of it,” she said.
Innovation vs. Iteration
Schaub said that most of her work is spent not necessarily on innovation but iteration.
“Let’s say we’ve decided we’re going to make a vegan cheese snack on a corn chip,” she suggested. “That first conversation is where we determine the type of product we want to make. I then go to the bench and do an initial pass to add a formula, and we do a taste test. That’s the innovation piece. All of the work to go from version A to version B. That’s iteration one.”
“Iteration two,” she added, “is still a lot of bench work that includes sourcing ingredients, having conversations with suppliers, and leveraging accessible raw materials to improve the 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.”
With ingredients, her conversations with suppliers often focus on whether it’s going to scale correctly. It can vary wildly.
“I like to start with the end in mind and identify all the claims we’re looking to make,” she said. “I mentioned vegan cheese, so non-dairy would be a type of claim we’d pursue. I’d take that list of claims and ask the suppliers how they can meet those requests. We don’t want a surprise either in the supply chain or in the ingredient itself later on, so I try to have these conversations upfront with suppliers.”
Schaub admitted that while everyone in her business has probably had at least one bad experience with a supplier, she was quick to add that her relationships with suppliers have been positive overall. After all, they want to stay in business, too. But, she added, communication – and transparency – can always be better.
“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 key,” she said. “Most of the time, it’s all kept in our heads. But there are so many more improvements in the market now that we can integrate our information better and find each other faster.”
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 challenging to get feedback from consumers or would-be consumers – aside from the sales numbers.
Consumer insights can be helpful, Schaub said, because it deliberately places the product in the hands of target consumers where companies can get direct feedback on the product. These studies can be expensive, but Schaub said companies, especially smaller ones, should incorporate research early in the development cycle – before a full-scale rollout.
“A consumer insight study from start to finish would take about a month to plan, and a month to execute, and hopefully you contact an organization early enough so they’ve got placeholder dates and you can send the product. They’ll run panels for you and send you data,” she advised. “In one month, you can figure out if the consumers have high purchase intent or if there’s something to change before you produce millions of units of a product that needs a minor tweak, so instead of launching something that’s 85% on track, you can launch it at 95%.”
While conventional wisdom holds that new product development cycles range from 12 to 18 months, from the completion of the first ideation meeting to a product hitting store shelves, Schaub argued 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 said.
Schaub revealed one of the most common pitfalls in the product development process is companies getting surprised by new information later in the development timeline. She stressed the importance of beginning with the end in mind and addressing issues as early as possible.
“For example, if you use a specific ingredient 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 said. “There are several tricks of the trade, like buying in advance, committing to certain volumes, and understanding your suppliers’ growth capacity. 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 get to leverage brand reputation in a category they’re not in yet. Getting that opportunity to represent the brand in a positive light was a big success for me.”
Another lesson Schaub’s learned in her career – and heard echoed by guests on her podcast – is never to burn the network bridge with suppliers. Those relationships, even those that aren’t as great as others, are the keys to success for proper product development, “whether it’s a research chef, an ingredient supplier, or a service provider, those relationships make the biggest difference in their careers and in the successes of the brands they represent.”
Chasing, or staying ahead of trends, is another hurdle that R&D departments face. Which 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 big right now,” she said. “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 suggested that anyone who wants to do what she does is 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 (IFT).
“I would say the first step to developing your superpower in the industry is getting to know the industry,” she said. “Attend networking events; go to regional events. If your company doesn’t sponsor membership in those organizations, then paying for the individual events in your area is the next best step, and you’ll build relationships. Like me, older folks in the industry like to attend those events and meet the young folks who are coming in to identify high performers to bring into the fold.”
When it comes to younger professionals looking for a mentor, Schaub suggested taking someone out for coffee or lunch after meeting them at a networking event. But, she pointed 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 said. “We’re all competitors on the shelves, but we’re all friends at the conferences. Mentorship has played a huge role in my life.”
The biggest mistake companies can make is hitting pause on new product development, especially during a challenging economic environment. A wait-and-see approach leads to a static product portfolio that can’t hope to outperform a competitor’s proactive strategy. Because your competitors are moving ahead, pulling back on NPD isn’t a viable solution.
With the launch of Formula Management, the TraceGains Networked Product Development Suite is now complete. The combined solution allows teams to go from manual processes to automated results by digitizing and streamlining new product development for better, faster innovation. Networked means companies no longer have to chase down suppliers for documentation because it’s already available.
You can still catch this on-demand webinar, where TraceGains CEO Gary Nowacki and Sales Engineer Ruben Galbraith share how Networked Product Development drives collaboration, innovation, and faster time to market. Download the recording and slides here.