CHICAGO — The software industry, social media programs like TikTok and restaurant menus all may inspire food and beverage product developers to create items sold at retail.

“I get my inspiration from the software industry because when you look at how they do product development, they really have mastered the quick, front-end prototyping,” said Lauren Lackey, president at Centauri Innovations LLC, in a July 19 session at IFT FIRST, the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and expo in Chicago. “They develop something. They put it on. They give it a test. If it doesn’t work, they throw it out.

"I really respect the fact that they want to see failure for learning. They do not fear failure. I’d love to see some of that come into the food industry.”

Steve Marko, senior director R&D at Tillamook County Creamery Association, and Shima Shayanfar, PhD, principal scientist at Herbalife Nutrition, also were on the panel.

Marko said he encourages product developers to visit restaurants and explore TikTok and social media for potential trends.

“If the (innovative product) is on the retail shelves, then it’s already happened,” he said.

Dr. Shayanfar said social media is a way to find trends happening in other areas of the world.

“The world is becoming smaller and smaller in a way that everybody wants to try everything,” she said.

When it comes to innovation, companies may create new technologies and new products internally or acquire technologies and companies.

“Sometimes when big companies absorb smaller companies, they try to turn these smaller innovative companies into big less-innovative companies,” Lackey said. “What happens is you take that magic away from the smaller company that had all this innovation and different way of thinking. I think, if we stay with M&A, the best move is to let that small company be themselves for a while. Let them do what they do best. It should go the other way where the small company is actually teaching the large company how to do things.”

Tillamook Country Creamery Association leans toward acquisitions.

“We want as much R&D internal as possible as we can, but those disruptive innovations that take a lot of demand and resources, we’re going to let those happen outside (the company),” Marko said. “Then we would look to buy that innovation.”

Tillamook keeps an outside product development firm on retainer.

“You don’t know when projects are going to suddenly overwhelm you,” Marko said. “Instead of having to keep three full-time people on staff, I can keep product development on retainer.”

Product development slowed during COVID-19.

“When there is some sort of risk and stress, any living organism goes into survival mode,” Dr. Shayanfar said. “That’s what we saw in the food industry, like trying to maintain the ongoing business.”

Now innovation is picking back up.

“When the stress was removed, now we are dealing with a stronger food industry that has gotten disruptive and inventive enough to come up with alternative solutions,” she said. “We have found ways to harmonize and streamline some of the processes. We have found some efficient ways to upcycle some of the side stream waste.”