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Beyond the box: A profile in R&D leadership of Sameer Talsania, PhD

When innovating at the leading edge of the consumer packaged goods industry, one often confronts “the box.” Sameer Talsania, PhD, Senior Manager, External Innovation at PepsiCo R&D knows all about “the box” in its figurative and literal sense. He’s spent his career in R&D leadership thinking outside figurative boxes with teams who are re-designing actual boxes (and most every other form of packaging).

Sometimes, his R&D teams create outside-the-box solutions themselves. When the problem goes beyond their capabilities, Dr. Talsania has developed an approach for tapping an external resource for fresh ideas, emerging technologies, and novel processes.

While transitioning between roles as a scientist, engineer, and corporate innovation manager at some of the world’s most innovative multi-national corporations, Dr. Talsania has developed leading perspectives on open innovation and R&D leadership for the CPG industry. His insights into the interlocking gears of innovation is unusually intricate, having manned the controls of many touchpoints along the innovation journey. He was charged with improving industrial processes, innovating materials science applications, and product development at PPG Industries and GE – Plastics. While at the William Wrigley Jr. Company he led packaging innovation teams. And for several years he has helped lead Global R&D and external innovation at PepsiCo.

The common thread for these roles has been balancing ideation with execution. First, it’s about creating the conditions for teams to think differently and generate new ideas. And from there, it’s about executing those innovation projects within budget and on a tight set of constraints, such as using existing manufacturing equipment.

A chemical engineer by training, Dr. Talsania has found that large companies can stay nimble and keep pace with accelerating change by welding strong R&D practices with out-of-the-box thinking. It’s up to the R&D leader to understand the constraints and know when to look within or beyond the company for solutions.  

“It’s a difficult problem but it’s fun,” said Dr. Talsania. “When you’re given a constraint you have to be creative. At the end of the day, the solution has to make sense for the business and you have to look at whether you have the internal capability to create that solution… If not, then you can look outside to an external partner, like an academic institution or a startup, or a curated network of inventors.”

From materials science and engineering to consumer psychology and market trend analysis, an expansive scope of knowledge drives innovation of new products and packaging. Dr. Talsania has learned how to tap external innovation partners to accelerate internal innovation teams’ capabilities for:

  • Solving old technical challenges with fresh new perspectives
  • Adopting different and emerging technologies
  • Integrating new materials solutions
  • Finding applications for existing IP in new markets
  • Filling the innovation pipeline
  • Building new collaborative ventures and ecosystems

“We’re still learning the external innovation piece as a company; our external innovation team is under four years in existence,” said Dr. Talsania. “It’s not about saying, ‘We don’t know how to do this, so let’s just go find somebody.’ It’s about finding the right partner, evaluating why they’re the right partner, and creating the conditions for the partnership to succeed between your internal and external teams.”

Open innovation leadership

1. Diversity & culture 

When it comes to corporate innovation, the “figurative box” describes the compartmentalized approach to solving hard problems and creating new things. But diversity on an innovation team—and a company’s cultural embrace of diversity–supports the creative spark for new ideas.

Dr. Talsania was impressed early on in his career with the output of a cross-functional corporate innovation team he was on at Wrigley. He represented the materials science perspective on packaging innovation. Dr. Talsania’s thinking was expanded by the mix of engineers and scientists with consumer insights professionals and “marketing engineers.”

“We called them marketing engineers, and we worked with them quite closely doing ethnography studies and studies on consumer behavior and consumer desires and things like that,” said Dr. Talsania, who obtained his PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Houston. “In the end, we got to really understand the customer, and that was eye-opening.”

Dr. Talsania approached solutions thereafter with a new focus on the end-user. Innovation, he realized, was about much more than the raw materials and engineering of a product and its packaging. Everything had to align with the customer’s expectations and the company’s business goals.

“I was brought in as the materials scientist, but I learned on that team that packaging is about more than just the performance of materials,” said Dr. Talsania, recalling a project for improving a gum package’s sustainability profile. “We had to ask ourselves: what is the emotional significance of the packaging design to consumers? That constraint was overarching of the many technical constraints.”

2. Outside expertise

Establishing a culture for innovation is key to embracing diverse perspectives. Sometimes, it’s helpful to look beyond the company to bring in the expertise needed for the best ideas. The trick is finding and matching the right partners with the right problems.

At PepsiCo, Dr. Talsania is part of a forward-thinking global R&D team tasked with advancing innovation via linkages to external partners. What does that look like from a global food and beverage giant’s perspective? It could mean sourcing a startup’s technology to solve a specific inefficiency, or accelerate a process, or integrate new material. It could even mean designing and testing a whole venture with other innovation partners. All of that could be accomplished by partnering with a university, startup, or consultancy; or one could generate ideas by posting a paid innovation challenge to an innovator platform.

Alternatively, external innovation can be more outward-facing. It could mean accessing help to out-license existing technology beyond their domain expertise.  

These setups have been broadly known as open innovation: the use of purposive inflows and outflows of expertise to accelerate internal innovation and expand markets for external use of existing IP.

Dr. Talsania has found that open innovation success goes beyond a solution’s sheer technical merits. The idea must be feasible; its business case must be easily presentable to get buy-in from key stakeholders throughout the company. Ideation is important, but the execution is vital. 

“The thing that’s been the most impressive, and that we find the most interesting about Xinova, is just the caliber of these folks—these inventors–that they have curated in their network,” said Dr. Talsania. “These are also folks who are outside of the food and beverage industry, so they are bringing a completely different line of thinking to the problem, which I think has been really, really interesting—it’s definitely out-of-the-box type thinking.”

That differs, he said, from other partners already described. For example, he noted that startups are focused on applications for a single technology around which their business is built. Solutions are less out-of-the-box with a single domain or technology-focused partner. Working with professional inventors, however, the focus expands to developing far-reaching ideas and inventing solutions.

3. Total buy-in

The roadblock to commercialization that Dr. Talsania typically runs up against is rarely one of ideation–but execution.

“We’ve learned a lot over the years about what seems to work well and what doesn’t, and … more often than not, the bigger part of the challenge of advancing a really new idea comes from the corporate side.”

Innovation blockers in an external partnership can be cultural: the processes are simply different from what many are used to. But often, communication issues lie at the heart of stalled technology projects. A new process can seem strange or risky; green-lighting an external innovation project requires a different level of buy-in, and it’s important the decision-maker understands why the project will advance business goals.

“Inventors (at Xinova) are going to come up with interesting solutions most of the time, but when ideas come from outside-of-the-box, it almost needs to be such a big problem that it immediately has a lot of buy-in from all across the company,” he said. “Key people are really motivated to be looking for an out-of-the-box solution to a grand challenge, so they’re ready to go forward when they are presented with one.”

Bigger problems can be better

Smaller problems can generate big ideas. But those solutions, explained Dr. Talsania, are harder to drive across the finish line. Solutions to a smaller problem actually constitute a bigger lift for decision-makers. Justifying the allocation of resources towards the development of a seemingly obscure problem-and-solution can feel too risky. The business case needs to be well-pitched.  

“You almost need big grand challenges–that’s where this type of curated network approach works best. Even though the ideas you’re pitching might be interesting, if it’s not a big enough of an issue, then it’s almost too much for people within the company buy into an invention that is too new or too out-of-the-box to go after without a lot of effort to convey how solving that technical problem will align with business goals.”

***

Sameer Talsania, PhD, is a global R&D leader with 20 years professional experience across diverse industries. As Senior Manager in External Innovation at PepsiCo, he manages strategic global partnerships, open innovation platforms, and emerging technology scouting to accelerate innovation. His leadership and expertise in open innovation  and strategic partnerships is geared to deliver breakthrough innovation.

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