Nestle streamlines R&D to speed up product innovation

The Swiss company said it would merge its Nestle Research Center and Nestle Institute of Health Sciences into one organization called Nestle Research. (Reuters)
Updated 24 May 2018
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Nestle streamlines R&D to speed up product innovation

LONDON: Food giant Nestle plans to combine its scientific research operations into a single unit in an attempt to speed up development of new products at a time when competition from smaller rivals is intensifying.
The world’s biggest packaged food maker, with brands including Nescafe coffee and Perrier water, has been struggling with slowing sales growth for years. Now it is also under pressure from activist shareholder Daniel Loeb to increase investor returns.
To better compete, the Swiss company told Reuters it would merge its Nestle Research Center and Nestle Institute of Health Sciences (NIHS) into one organization called Nestle Research.
The new entity, to be announced later on Thursday, will continue to be based in Lausanne, Switzerland and will employ around 800 people.
The reorganization, effective July 1, will not involve job cuts or the closure of facilities, a spokesman said.
By linking the “blue-sky” research done at NIHS with the more commercially focused Research Center, it hopes to accelerate the translation of scientific discoveries into marketable products.
It also hopes this will help it compete with smaller, nimbler rivals who have been eating away at the market share of Nestle and other big firms like Danone, Unilever, Kraft Heinz and Kellogg.
Nestle Chief Technology Officer Stefan Palzer acknowledged earlier this month that his company had to keep pace with rising demand for goods that are organic, gluten-free or vegan.
“Big trends are embraced by smaller companies a bit more actively than the big companies,” Palzer told Reuters before Nestle’s streamlining plans had been finalized.
“We are adjusting our portfolio, doing many innovations and renovations to make the portfolio more relevant and to address those trends, but smaller companies are more agile.”
In the US — the world’s biggest packaged food market — small challenger brands could account for 15 percent of a $464 billion sector in a decade’s time, up from about 5 percent last year, Bernstein Research predicted last year.
The combination of research units is the latest move by Palzer aimed at speeding up development and ensuring research efforts are commercially viable.
Palzer, who took over Nestle’s innovation and research and development operations in January, is also supplementing long-term research projects with incremental product launches made faster by experimenting with new ideas more quickly.
Last month, for example, Palzer and colleagues got the idea for a vegetarian or vegan food product while on a business trip.
“Thursday we had an idea, Friday we returned to Switzerland and Monday evening I was able to taste the first prototype,” Palzer said. “Wednesday, this prototype was shown to the executive board, and Friday it was in the global pipeline.”
He declined to give more details of the product, except to say it is currently being assessed by the operations team to see how long it will take to produce and on what machinery.
Other steps include efforts to apply specific developments to more products, such as Nestle’s recent designer sugar crystals launched in low-sugar Milkybars in March, which will go into other products in the future.
The importance of agility was underlined by Nestle’s recent struggle to capitalize on resurgent demand for frozen foods.
The company says it reformulates one third of its product portfolio every year.
Nestle spent 1.72 billion Swiss francs ($1.73 billion) on R&D last year, down slightly from 2016 but up 22 percent from 2012. The company’s sales fell 2.6 percent over the same period.
As a percentage of sales, its expenditure has fluctuated only a little, but demands on the unit have increased.
Wells Fargo analyst John Baumgartner said that across 10 large publicly traded US food companies, median expenses for R&D and advertising have declined 20 percent over the past five years.
“As voids of ideas and marketing have emerged, start-ups have been more responsive to consumer needs, won the culture and created the emotional connections that drive sales,” he said in a recent note.
Palzer said some industry peers had been outsourcing innovation to cut costs, relying on acquisitions of small brands or partnerships with suppliers.
But he said it was critical for Nestle to maintain scientific expertise in-house to keep its own portfolio fresh and to be an attractive partner for collaboration with others. Nestle does R&D around the world, involving around 5,000 people.
Fundamental scientific research will remain key at Nestle, Palzer said, but he also highlighted the value of external partnerships and acquisitions that can bring in new research or capabilities more easily.
Scientific research and innovation itself is not necessarily the reason why big breakthroughs tend to be rare for multinational companies, said Shaun Browne, investment banker at Houlihan Lokey, who advises food companies on deals.
“They often don’t have the patience or passion that is really required,” Browne said. “Often these things are one individual who is just totally determined and passionate about their product and sees it through.”


Germany’s GDP growth outlook hit by euro crisis, US-EU trade conflict

Updated 16 min 47 sec ago
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Germany’s GDP growth outlook hit by euro crisis, US-EU trade conflict

ERLIN: Germany’s Ifo institute on Tuesday cut its forecasts for growth in Europe’s biggest economy this year and next, citing a weak start to the year and increased global risks.
Ifo said it expected the German economy to grow by 1.8 percent this year and in 2019, a big revision downwards from previous forecasts of 2.6 percent and 2.1 percent respectively.
“The economy developed significantly more weakly than anticipated in the first few months of the year,” Ifo economist Timo Wollmershaeuser said. “The global economic risks have risen significantly,” he added.
Ifo said the economic upswing in Germany should continue but at a slower pace, echoing an assessment by the Bundesbank last week.
In addition to weak industrial activity and exports in the first four months of the year, a trade dispute between the United States and the European Union is clouding the outlook for the German economy. US President Donald Trump is threatening to impose hefty tariffs on car imports from European allies in addition to unilateral metals duties.
The Bundesbank said on Monday that German growth should rebound in the second quarter thanks to higher state spending, a humming construction sector and strong private consumption.
But it warned that trade and political concerns have made the outlook for the economy more uncertain and revised down its own growth projections.
A new Italian coalition government that comprises anti-establishment parties with a brief to shake up EU institutions has also unnerved German companies.
“The downside risks for the German economy have significantly risen,” said Ifo’s Wollmershaeuser. “Germany’s economic advantages are far outweighed by two risks — euro crisis 2.0 through Italy and a trade war.”
As well as the US-EU trade dispute, German business leaders are worried that a trade confrontation between the United States and China could harm exporters that rely on the world’s two largest economies for growth.
China has raised tariffs on $50 billion in US goods, responding to similar measures by Trump, who has also threatened a 10-percent tariff on $200 billion of Chinese goods.
“The likelihood that we have a trade war that also affects Germany is higher now than it was in spring,” said Wollmershaeuser.