Innovation takes time, effort and, in many cases, collaboration. General Mills, Minneapolis, MN, uses its General Mills Worldwide Innovation Network (G-WIN) to team up with outside companies to enhance its efforts in product development. In a recent project, General Mills partnered with contract manufacturer Hearthside Food Solutions, Downers Grove, IL, to produce Fiber One 90-Calorie Brownies.

Jenny Mcaab, innovation entrepreneur for the snacks division at General Mills, is responsible for finding outside solutions to problems in the division by leveraging externally sourced technologies, ingredients and products. During her 12 years at General Mills, Ms. Mcaab has worked on a number of external R&D initiatives in snacks and Yoplait. In this exclusive interview with Baking & Snack, she provided Formulations Update readers with insights into the company's process.

Baking & Snack: Let’s start off with some background on the project. What prompted General Mills to consider an open innovation partnership to create the new Fiber One brownies?

Jenny Mcaab: When our snacks division wanted to add a tasty, wholesome brownie to the popular line of Fiber One products, it was faced with a challenge. Though General Mills knows a thing or two about baked goods, there’s a big difference between producing world-renowned flour, baking mixes and pre-made refrigerated dough, and producing a shelf-stable, ready-to-eat baked good.

While the Fiber One team created the idea and concept, and our R&D department had the expertise to make the perfect dough for the brownie, we recognized that we didn’t have the existing internal expertise and baking manufacturing capabilities to bake it. So, we decided to enlist an open innovation partner to save time and reduce risk in developing the new product.

What expertise did you need from the partnership and how did it complement the expertise that you had in house?

Our team built on the product formulation know-how from past product experiences to create the perfect dough formulation for Fiber One 90-Calorie Brownies, but we needed a partner with the technical know-how and capacity to take the dough we’d created and scale the brownies to production.

How did you decide on Hearthside Food Solutions to complement your expertise?

General Mills has worked with Hearthside Food Solutions for years on other product innovations. When we began searching for a partner for the Fiber One brownie project, we became aware that Hearthside had the capabilities we were seeking.

Hearthside’s personnel had the baking experience and pilot plant facilities needed to perfect the baking process and take production to full scale. The company also had multiple locations with the right equipment available. All of these factors contributed to a smooth startup, while maximizing efficiency in terms of time and General Mills’ investment.

Which departments were involved with the partnership and how did they benefit from it?

By collaborating with Hearthside, our snacks division estimates it saved nine to 12 months in terms of taking the product from concept to launch. If General Mills had produced the brownies ourselves, we would have had to build up the know-how around baking the product from lab through production line. We wouldn’t have had access to Hearthside’s flexible pilot system that gave the ability to extensively test formulations, which allowed for consumer testing earlier in the product development cycle.

Additionally, Hearthside has shared in the marketplace success of Fiber One 90-Calorie Brownies with an increase in its business with General Mills and the opportunity to enhance its baking capabilities as it gained new expertise in baking higher-moisture-content products and improved finished product weight control. The company continues to partner with General Mills to leverage its manufacturing and baking expertise to bring innovation to market faster.

What were the initial goals of the partnership? What were some caveats you learned about during the project and how did everyone adapt to changes as time went on?

The No.1 goal of this open innovation partnership was to produce a delicious, healthy, high-quality brownie and bring it to market as quickly as possible.

From concept to launch, our partnership with Hearthside to develop Fiber One 90-Calorie Brownies proved to be win-win for both parties, which is exactly what open innovation is all about. By tapping into the best of each of our capabilities, we were able to introduce a better product faster.

We tried to be proactive on communication. Since changes frequently occur during the course of the project, we tried to have it be timely and frequent to keep both parties up-to-speed and heading in the same direction. With this approach, we were able to keep a fast timeline.

What advice would you offer other companies considering an open innovation partnership? What are the steps required to set something like that up?

Connected innovation is all about looking inside and outside the company to find smart people with the right capabilities to drive business forward.

One thing we’ve realized since launching our open innovation program, G-WIN, in 2007 is that it’s important to be specific and transparent about the challenges you’re looking to solve in order to identify the right partner for the project. For example, it’s one thing to say that you’re seeking “packaging solutions” — as we may have done early on in our efforts — and another to say that you’re looking for ways “to use renewable content in flexible packaging films and rigid containers.”

Another piece of advice based on our own experiences — including the partnership with Hearthside to develop Fiber One 90-Calorie Brownies — is to realize the huge opportunity you have to better connect with suppliers with whom you’re already working. Prior to launching G-WIN, we used to be close to the vest about our future plans and projects, even with suppliers. We now see the value existing suppliers can have at the front end of innovation.

A best practice we try to follow is to have a continued dialogue. Things can change quickly or delays in a decision may occur. We do our best to communicate these things in an open and transparent way. It’s not something that always comes naturally. Sometimes in a big company we like to hold things close until decisions are finalized but that can cause confusion or undue stress on the partner. Frequent communication really helps the partnership and develops trust between the two parties.