‘Championing visionary research’: How PepsiCo’s R&D Fellows are driving innovation

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

PepsiCo R&D Fellows are innovating to shape the future of food and bev / Pic: GettyImages-Motortion
PepsiCo R&D Fellows are innovating to shape the future of food and bev / Pic: GettyImages-Motortion

Related tags: Pepsico, Innovation, personalisation, Plastics, Functional ingredients

PepsiCo R&D Fellows are a ‘select’ group of innovation specialists with ‘exceptional expertise’ and a proven track record of ‘significant technical innovation’. FoodNavigator speaks to Chief Medical Officer and executive program sponsor, Antonio Tataranni, to learn more about how the initiative is ‘championing visionary research’ within PepsiCo.

PepsiCo's R&D Fellows program was launched in 2012 to encourage the company’s ‘most accomplished scientists’ to conduct visionary research. The initiative is part of PepsiCo’s commitment to building a best-in-class research and development organization by investing in key capabilities to drive growth.

“The program targets PepsiCo R&D specialists who demonstrate exceptional expertise and leadership on a company and industry level and have a proven track record of strategically and/or commercially significant technical innovation. They see around corners—either identifying or actually creating future food and beverage industry trends,”​ R&D Fellows executive sponsor and Chief Medical Officer Antonio Tataranni explained.

Participants pursue research projects that help set the direction for R&D and innovation across PepsiCo, making progress on sustainability, functional ingredients, improving product quality and cost, and fortifying intellectual and technical capabilities.

Currently, just 13 R&D specialists are in the program. These individuals are drawn from different disciplines within PepsiCo’s R&D teams. Research interests are broad: “Their research areas range from topics such as creating the next generation of the iconic microwave, to enhancing the sensory experience of snacking to the quest for the perfect Tortilla chip. Each project is unique and exciting in its own way,”​ Tataranni told us.

Research is guided by topics that the fellows themselves are passionate about – but also have ‘the potential to generate game-changing results’. “Each Fellow chooses a research focus and then ensures alignment from PepsiCo R&D’s senior leadership team,”​ he elaborated.

Microwave 3.0 for next gen snacking

Going back to the example of the microwave, this might seem like an unusual area of research for a snack and beverage manufacturer… possibly more the territory of appliance suppliers like Samsung, Kenwood or Bosch.

Tattaranni believes the microwave is a technology primed for disruption. “Unlike other technologies that have been upgraded multiple times, the microwave oven has only undergone one upgrade since first introduced in 1955. From the original version to the second, the technology was improved to create a more even heating process… One of our scientists is focused on the Microwave 3.0 using multi-frequency technology instead of single frequency to warm foods more evenly and in novel ways.”

But why is this an area of interest for PepsiCo? Such innovation, Tataranni continued, can unlock future possibilities in the snacking space.

“This project involves investigating opportunities to mass personalize snacking at point-of-sale in foodservice venues, and eventually in-home by allowing consumers to order a hot snack to their exact specification – piping hot or simply warmed or anywhere in between. If we can master this technology, it opens the door to a vast amount of culinary opportunities.”

Unlocking personalised and functional possibilities 

Bringing true personalisation to the mass market is a significant challenge – but it is one that PepsiCo’s R&D Fellows are keenly aware of.

Combining nutrition science, food and beverage expertise and wearable technologies is an area that is already proving fruitful for the Lay’s-to-Gatorade manufacturer. Work to understand an athlete’s hydration level through the measurement and analysis of sweat supported the launch of the Gatorade Gx Sweat Patch.

PepsiCo wearables tech
PepsiCo is leveraging wearable tech to support personalisation / Pic: PepsiCo

The company is now looking to move this research to the next level, Tataranni revealed. “Now that this product has hit the market, our research is focused on the next generation of wearable technology. We are focused on different ways to capture readings farther below the skin’s surface that measure interstitial fluid sodium concentration in the body to get an even more accurate reading that can be used to inform personalized nutrition goals for athletes.”

Elsewhere, work is underway to develop innovative recipes that deliver on growing consumer interest in functional ingredients that support health and wellness outcomes.

“Reduces stress, better sleep, calming and improves mood are all top 20 benefits we are seeing that consumers are seeking across markets, and the desire for functional benefits continues to rise. People are looking to beverages to help soothe their frayed nerves and are turning towards relaxing ingredients such as lavender, chamomile and lemon. Our R&D team worked extensively on our recent beverage launch, Driftwell, a functional beverage that contains L-theanine to promote relaxation,”​ Tataranni elaborated.

Alongside stress release, COVID-19 has heightened consumer desire for products that deliver immunity benefits, he continued. The PepsiCo innovation expert pointed to the potential of ingredients like ginger, elderberry, echinacea, vitamin C and zinc. “We recognized this trend early and launched Propel Immune Support with Vitamin C and Zinc and LIFEWTR Immune Support with Zinc to help support a healthy immune system.”

While PepsiCo has already developed products that meet this need, innovation efforts around immunity continue apace. “We expect this trend to continue to grow over the coming years and we plan to continue to innovate around food and beverage options with functional ingredients to help meet this increasing consumer demand,”​ Tataranni revealed.

Driftwell pic PepsiCo
Driftwell was launched in response to consumer desire for relaxation / Pic: PepsiCo

Sustainability and the future of plastics

Since the 1950s around 8.3bn tonnes of plastic has been produced worldwide. Only 9% of it has been recycled – a massive 79% has ended up in landfills or the environment.

The world waking up to the scale of its plastic problem must have come as something of an existential crisis for large beverage makers, who have relied on this cheap, safe, flexible material for decades.

Innovation to tackle the plastic problem is one of PepsiCo’s sustainable innovation priorities. “PepsiCo R&D is constantly working to develop innovative, viable, and most importantly, sustainable packaging alternatives,”​ we were told.

Early progress is evident. By 2022, the company will have eliminated virgin plastic from the Pepsi brand across nine European markets, for instance. This effort to move to 100% rPET for markets including Germany, Spain, France and the UK will eliminate 70,000 tonnes of virgin, fossil fuel based plastic a year, lowering emissions per bottle by around 40%. 

The company has set a target for 100% of its packaging to be recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable by 2025, while also reducing the carbon footprint of plastic packaging.

“Our approach is based on three interconnected strategies: reducing the amount of plastic that we use, recycling more plastic to support a circular economy and reinventing the plastic packaging we use,”​ Tataranni elaborated. “For example, one of the R&D Fellows is specifically focused on the ‘recycle’ and ‘reinvent’ solutions and is researching bio-based packaging.”

The research is examining ways to upcycle otherwise discarded oat hulls or oat husks from the Quaker Oats manufacturing process and potentially use them to create flexible packaging. “It’s still fairly early in the research process, and there are scientific challenges to overcome, but our minds have been opened to exploring a wide range of food packaging alternatives that might one day become commercially viable.”

Pepsi's new rPET bottle pic Pepsico
Pepsi's new rPET bottle / Pic: Pepsico

Boosting quality and reducing cost

Producing higher quality products at a lower cost was also identified as one of the core areas of focus for the R&D Fellows. This reflects the importance that consumers place on price and taste, which Tataranni described as ‘top priorities’.

“We are always looking to optimise our products and the consumer experience, whether that be by improving quality and cost or other factors. The R&D Fellows program is one of the avenues we are using to achieve these efforts.

“One example from the R&D Fellows Program is the development of a patented thermobaric frying technology, which delivers a great tasting potato chip that uses less oil while simultaneously boosting throughput. This allows us to make more chips in less time and makes the process more economical.”

Future focus: Plant-based and Beyond Meat tie-up

Tataranni explained that investing in capabilities like R&D is fundamental to the food and beverage giant’s long-term vision and strategy to ‘drive transformation and accelerate growth’.

“The R&D Fellows program has allowed us to dive deeper into consumer preference areas, gain insights into where the research can go and deliver functional benefits, sustainable solutions and cutting-edge technologies. These advances will ultimately transform the way consumers interact with their foods and beverages while also optimising quality, nutrition profile, cost and environmental sustainability,”​ he predicted.

So, what avenues of innovation does he believe offer the greatest transformative potential?

“One area where we see huge potential is around plant-based food. Consumers are seeking to include more plant-based foods in their diets to support their health and for the good of the planet. We want to deliver not just plant-based products, but ones that are also better-for-you and more nutritious with higher protein or other functional benefits. And of course, never compromise on taste.

“We’re looking at plant-based proteins like chickpeas, peas and lentils because they can deliver from a science-backed nutrition perspective, but the challenge is delivering on taste and texture. That’s why we’ve invested in our technological R&D capabilities to unlock that potential, and why we are really excited about our recent PLANeT Partnership with Beyond Meat.”

beans, pulses, grains, plant-based Pic - istock-baibaz
PepsiCo is investigating new plant-based protein sources / Pic: istock-baibaz

Established at the beginning of this year, the joint venture aims to develop, produce and market innovative snack and beverage products made from plant-based protein.

According to PepsiCo, the partnership will leverage Beyond Meat's ‘leading technology’ in plant-based protein and PepsiCo's marketing and commercial capabilities to create and scale new snack and beverage options.

“Beyond Meat is a cutting-edge innovator in this rapidly growing category, and the new joint venture follows our longstanding commitment to help build a more sustainable food system. We look forward to combining Beyond Meat’s expertise with our world-class capabilities in brand-building, consumer insights and distribution to deliver exciting new options at scale,”​ Tataranni noted.

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