General Mills opens up to innovation

by Jeff Gelski
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CHICAGO — Mike Antinone, senior R.&D. manager, Open Innovation, for General Mills, Inc., gave a 2005 company response to a technology broker to show how far General Mills has come in changing its innovation policies. The response read, “It is General Mills policy not to review, accept or fund any submitted idea from outside the company.”

The policy no longer exists. Minneapolis-based General Mills in 2010 searches for innovation and new product ideas through several sources, as evidenced by its G-WIN (Worldwide Innovation Network). Dr. Antinone gave tips on the General Mills strategy in his presentation “Connected Innovation: The Power of Many” March 24 in Chicago at Wellness 10 presented by the Institute of Food Technologists.

Dr. Antinone said General Mills seeks innovation and answers to problems in three ways: internal collaboration, collaboration with trusted partners and collaboration with new partners. Internally, General Mills holds an annual two-day technical conference. Also, under a TechConnect electronic collaboration, a General Mills employee may post a challenge or need. Anybody within the company may respond.

In collaborating with trusted partners, including suppliers, General Mills has become more specific about presenting its needs. The company did not do so in the past for fear of giving away secrets. Dr. Antinone used rocks in an analogy, saying that General Mills would ask for a rock instead of specifying the company wanted a small purple rock. A trusted partner may have responded with a big, yellow rock.

“Let’s just tell them we want a small, purple rock,” Dr. Antinone said of company strategy today.
Collaborating with new partners may involve “finding smart people who already are doing what you want to do,” Dr. Antinone said. He gave the real-life example of General Mills finding a Canadian manufacturer that produced a small cheese and spinach item. General Mills partnered with the company and launched Pillsbury Savorings, a line of adult appetizers.

General Mills has forsaken some of its secrecy. For example, the company more openly seeks ways to reduce sodium in its Progresso brand, a strategy that should not be a surprise anyway to competing companies in the soup category.

General Mills took internal and external approaches in launching a healthy Progresso product, Dr. Antinone said. Internally, General Mills employees working for the Yoplait yogurt brand recommended using the word “light” in the soup product title. Externally, General Mills partnered with Weight Watchers for its Progresso Light soup.

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