New Product Development, especially in the food industry, touches every aspect of our daily lives, whether it is health, convenience, or taste !

Ria Bhadra, our next pathbreaker, R&D Food Technologist at Unilever, works on new and existing products in the Foods & Refreshments category.

Ria talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about always having a research mindset and being intrigued by how research & experimentation could lead to innovations in food.

For students, food is a priority for everyone, and there cannot be a better opportunity to apply your knowledge of science for the betterment of our society!

Ria, Your background? 

I was born in a city called “Dimapur” in the state of Nagaland. I have had the privilege to grow amidst the beauty of the “Seven Sisters”. My childhood has been very fascinating since I grew up amidst diversity and never had realized what the other part of India meant when they said – caste, community, religion etc. 

My father was a B.Com graduate and naturally a businessman and my mother is a homemaker. I was always inspired by my father and my elder sister as they were praised by people for their wit and wisdom. I had always wanted to follow their footsteps and make my family proud. 

To be honest, in my childhood, I was not a very ambitious kid and never had a so-called plan for the future. Nevertheless, I loved to read and was never bored of my subjects. I just knew that I would continue to work hard, and my destiny will lead me along its way. 

I loved spending time with my childhood friends, playing indoor games and cycling around the city – probably this is how I had developed an interest to travel and explore new places. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation? 

I completed my B.Tech in Food Engineering and Technology from Tezpur Central University, Assam and M.Tech in Food Process Engineering and Management from National Institute of Food Technology Entrepreneurship and Management (NIFTEM), Haryana. 

What prompted you to venture into such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career path? 

When I was in my 12th Standard, I had a strong inclination towards Biology and Chemistry. I enjoyed studying about a particular organism down to its cellular level and about the chain of reactions which happen and give rise to a certain phenomenon. I was always curious to know the logic behind something! Probably, that was indicative of me having a research mindset.

Now when it came to choosing my career, with these subjects, I had very limited options. I did not want to do something very common and conventional like medical/IT. Bachelor’s in science in either Chemistry or Biology would have been too mainstream, and I was keen to do something more interesting- I was more interested to learn the subjects and apply the concepts practically in life rather than just reading about them constantly. This is when I got to know about the course – Food Engineering and Technology and it instantly clicked with me. It was the same time when there were huge plans put in place by the Government for the agricultural and food sector in India and I was very hopeful for the same. It was a road less travelled by, and I was determined to explore it as best as I could. The course curriculum that the University had planned was extremely interesting and I thoroughly enjoyed them during my grad as well as post grad. 

It was even more delightful when I did my summer and winter projects. My first project was in the Chemical Engineering Department in one of the best Chemical Technology Institutions of the Country – ICT (Mumbai), under a Scientist who specialized in Heat and Mass Transfer (a subject which is common to both Food and Chemical Engineering). This experience was thrilling, and I became intrigued by how research & experimentation could lead to practical results. Especially, during my final year project in B.Tech where I got a chance to apply all that I had learnt during those four years of Engineering, and the success of my project was definitely a big driver and motivation towards deciding to go for an M.Tech. The fact that NIFTEM was known to shape an individual both in academics and management excited me even more. Techno-managers, as we say, were supposed to be our new names! 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path 

When I started my B.Tech journey in Food Engineering & Technology, I had a slightly different objective in life than what I am currently doing. It was relatively a new field of study as it was different from the conventional engineering subjects like civil, mechanical, computer science, electronics or electrical and there was a huge prospect to do lots of research in this particular stream of Engineering . I started to enjoy my subjects and it was fun to realize the potential of this domain. I was planning to pursue a PhD and choose academia as a career. However, I also realized that apart from the core subjects in food, I also literally enjoyed the management subjects which was a big factor that finally drove me towards the career path I have chosen for myself today. 

I would like to mention about an experience which I believe had changed me as a better professional. It was during my second year of B.Tech when there was a scholarship announcement made by the college called “General Electric Scholar Leader Program” in which the winners were awarded with not just a hefty scholarship amount that would fund for the remaining two years of study but also made to participate in a workshop at General Electric Research Centre, Bangalore. The selection criteria were based on good academic record and extra -curricular activities followed by an interview conducted by a specialized selection panel who would judge a candidate’s presence of mind and thought process. I was very fortunate to win this scholarship, competing against all the students of B.Tech from different branches and participated in this workshop along with four other students from other premium institutions in the country. We interacted with GE engineers and presented our ideas in front of them and worked on projects together in a short span of four days, at Bangalore. It was for the first time I had done something so unique in life which instilled in me a lot of professional etiquettes and traits which still help me perform at my workplace. This event made me realize the true potential of “participation” in anything, which comes up as an opportunity. Winning it or losing it is secondary, but the experiences and skills one develops as an individual stays forever and helps one stand out in the crowd. 

So, it did not end here. I kept participating in such events that followed and won many accolades like the INSA-NASI-INS summer fellowship, the best presentation award in National seminars, Foreign Student Exchange fellowship, as well as opportunities to publish in research paper publications in reputed journals and so on. There was no specific mantra to win these scholarships apart from the sincere efforts to participate in them.

One of the skills which participation in all of these events/activities had inculcated in me was “Consistency”. And this led to me becoming the Gold Medallist in both B.Tech and M.Tech programs. It’s like the famous dialogue in the bollywood movie, “83” where the actor imitates Kapil Dev and mentions the line, “Taste the success once, tongue wants more”.

How did you get your first break? 

I earned my first internship through a college internship placement drive in ITC Spices Ltd., Guntur for six months where I had the opportunity to work on a management related project and had learnt very essential and business-related terminologies and tactics which helped me earn a job right after the internship at Tasty Bite Eatables limited with a Pre-Placement Offer in their Research & Development department. It was the very first company that had come to the campus in that particular year for and I was lucky to get through it. 

Tasty Bite Eatables Ltd. is a food processing company which deals with advanced food processing technologies like thermal sterilization or retorting of food products by which the pre-cooked food remains stable for about more than 20 months (differs from one food product to the other and the extent of processing) on the shelf without the use of any chemical preservatives. This is a very interesting technology and requires a strong background knowledge on thermal sterilization/retort technology apart from the general concepts of food chemistry, microbiology, heat & mass transfer, food laws & regulations and food science. As a food engineering student, I had studied about all of these during my grad and post-grad. Therefore, it was all about practically using all the acquired knowledge from my subjects and creating the products.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them? 

The main challenge that needs to be addressed, in my opinion, is the transition one must go through from “Campus to Corporate” – professionalism, attention to detail, email etiquettes, understanding the core business and planning the activities around the job role etc. which are very different from the academic world where one tends to focus on books and subjects while one is still a student. 

Another challenge is realizing that each day at work is equally important and there is very less room for error especially in the department I am associated with. This is because any food product in the market needs to be safe for consumption, and one processing error could lead to serious health implications/ could be, in some cases, fatal for a consumer and a huge loss for the business if it leads to food recalls. So, it is a huge responsibility and attention to detail becomes a necessity. 

Where do you work now? Can you tell us about your current role?

Currently, I am working with Hindustan Unilever Limited in its Foods Research and Development category as a Product Design and Development Lead. 

Our brands in the foods category are very well known – Kissan, Knorr, Bru, Red label, Kwality Walls, Rex, Brown & Polson etc. and I deal with product development under most of these brands.

What problems do you solve? 

I am involved in designing and developing new products for the business and solving every technical problem related to innovations and existing products in our category, thereby contributing towards the growth of the business and the organization. 

The R&D department in any food processing company fundamentally works for launching new products in the market – either for retail consumers like you & me or for the HoReCa (hospitality) industry which is a B2B segment.

A new product development cycle typically consists of idea generation – what has to be developed?), research about the product (which processing technique should be chosen to make the product safe for consumption- thermal treatment/ chemical preservation/ freezing/ pasteurization?), planning (project planning, timelines, network activities), prototyping (building the formulation, choosing the right ingredients, identifying the potential suppliers which conforms to the organizational standards, evaluating the financial feasibility etc.), testing (scaling up from lab to pilot, consumer feedback and reworking on the product basis the comments, shelf life evaluation), product development (performing the trials at factories, addressing to the issues faced, product label/artwork development) and commercialisation (final stage – product launch). 

Therefore, my role is more about the approach, overcoming unprecedented challenges related to all kinds of food products – wet/ dry/ fried/ emulsions/ intermediate moisture products etc., and at the same time managing a lot of information and activities throughout the developmental cycle. 

What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills? 

Typical skills include – A research mindset, domain & practical knowledge, good analytical skills, an inquisitive nature, attention to detail and a learning attitude. 

My academic background gave me most of it. Since I have had the privilege to publish research papers, I know how to search for relevant scientific information on the web which proves handy a lot of times. Apart from domain knowledge, my first job and colleagues have played a very instrumental role in helping me undergo the transition from ‘Campus to Corporate’. 

Since the food industry is guided by food laws and regulatory bodies, it is extremely crucial to abide by them and not allow a single room for error which could lead to unimaginable losses to the organization. The responsibility is big in an R&D role. I have learned all of it by following different organizations on LinkedIn and the news associated with many of them. Besides, I have built a good network with the Food Tech Community to keep myself updated and exchange information on social media wherever possible. 

What is a typical day like? 

A typical day starts with a nice cup of coffee from the vending machine at my office, checking emails, planning out and prioritizing the activities for the day. In product design and development, it is all about developing new food products, and therefore, there are formulation that need to be developed through lab trials and critical parameters need to be designed through various analytical techniques that must be controlled or evaluated during the scaling up process at factories. At the end of the day, my goal is to ensure that the trials performed during the day are meaningful, satisfactory and should lead to either success, or failure with an identified root cause so that the next day starts with correcting it and working towards solutions.

What is it you love about this job? 

At the end of my projects, when a food product is launched, I go through almost the same feeling a mother goes through while delivering a baby. Seeing those products on shelf in the market gives me a wonderful sense of accomplishment. This is what I love about this job. 

How does your work benefit society? 

New product development ensures that the agricultural yield, apart from the daily consumption in people’s household, is utilized in the best possible manner and helps to minimize the agricultural wastage which is roughly about 350 million tonnes every year, through processing of food. Apart from this, food and refreshment are vital elements that bring joy to everyone’s faces and add to the nutritional requirements of a person. Making it likeable, convenient, nutritious, and full of taste, while being affordable and accessible to all through the strong distribution channels of the organization are notable contributions. Improvement of Food sector in the country is being prioritized in every possible manner, therefore, the income being generated from this domain is helping the nation flourish. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you! 

It was very memorable when a product launched at Tasty Bite Eatables Limited received the very prestigious SOFI Award- gold winner, for 2022. I had rigorously worked on this product with my team . Another work which motivated me was receiving the Silver Award for high performance at HUL for innovations in the “Out of Home” Beverages category just after six months of my joining. The award gave me a sense of satisfaction and belief that hard work pays off well. 

Your advice to students based on your experience? 

Please do not get demotivated in life if you feel you are not ready for the conventional career paths which the majority of people run after. ‘The road not taken’ by Robert Frost has taught us a lot about the charm of exploring the new and I have been able to justify it – “ I took the road less travelled by, and that has made all the difference”. Wishing you all the best and hoping that my career journey would be able to support you in some way and help you get charged up. 

Future Plans? 

I want to launch more and more exciting products and get myself experienced in as many different food products and technologies as possible. I would also like to sharpen my business acumen and climb up the ladder on the professional front. These are simple and achievable goals based on my passion of trying out the new and making a difference! 

By Ria Bhadra