Food Development is a democratic process that goes through several iterations, opinions, revisions, challenges and industrial validations before it reaches the shelves !
Pradeep Suriya, our next pathbreaker, Sr. Research & Innovation Manager at Danone (Canada), manages the Yogurt portfolio of the US – Brand Dannon, Activia, YoCrunch, Danimals, DanActive and Danonino.
Pradeep talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about starting his career in sensory science and moving on to entirely new categories such as Yoghurt, Plant based foods and Dairy alternatives.
For students, compared to other industries, the food industry thrives on passion, which is probably the reason behind innovative products that consumers see when they open the doors of their refrigerator or kitchen cabinet !
Pradeep, tell us what were your growing up years like?
I grew up in Chennai, Tamil Nadu for pretty much all my childhood. I completed my primary school at Alpha Matriculation, Teynampet and then moved to Don Bosco, Egmore until 12th grade. I should say I was quite the opposite of what I am now; extremely quiet, studious, and the guy who remained opaque. Many in school knew me as the extremely quiet guy who always secured the 2nd rank in school. I think that sums up my ‘no goal’ philosophy as I knew I didn’t have to struggle much to get the 2nd rank, compared to trying to attain & retain the 1st rank. I had a few selective friends and didn’t engage much in extra curricular activities at school. On the curricular front, I was interested in science and history; I think my interest in history is what paved my way in my current field of expertise (always delving into the ‘how’ before I start answering the ‘what & why’). I chose science stream (Biology and Math) for my 11th as I felt it gave me the dual opportunity (again with a ‘no goal’ philosophy) to lean into an Engineering or Medical stream depending on the outcome of my results.
On the family side, my dad was a businessman in the textile and apparel industry while my mom was a homemaker. My parents ensured that I paid attention to my studies.
What did you do for graduation/ post-graduation?
After completion of my school, my grades weren’t sufficient to pursue medicine (except dentistry) in Tamil Nadu; so I chose to pursue science and technology stream. I looked at the curricular programs at Anna University and opted for the B.Tech program in Food Science as my first preference in spite of having the grades to opt for the coveted EEE, IT, Computer Science programs etc. at Anna University. I think personally, I preferred to pursue things that I like doing rather than what’s the most sought after (nalla scope irruku (tamil)– there is a great opportunity) rhetoric in the early 2000s. I joined the first batch of Anna University’s Food Technology program, a ‘scope’ that always confuses my friends and family members who wonder whether I am studying hotel management or other similar consumer centric careers. Personally, I was always surprised by how consumers purchased everyday foods like a loaf of bread, cereals (referred to as Kelloggs in India), jam, ice creams etc, and yet never pondered about the food scientists who develop these everyday foods on a larger scale.
I graduated in B.Tech Food Technology from the Centre for Biotechnology, Alagappa College of Technology, Anna University, Guindy Campus. After my bachelors, I enrolled in the Masters of Science program in the School of Food Science at Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. I was initially working on sensory evaluation (science of tasting) of various foods such as dairy products, apples, wine and meat analogues. Later, I transferred, along with my principal advisor, to the master’s program at Iowa State University, Ames Iowa and graduated from the same.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
I was always fascinated by choices that people or a specific demographic make and their impact. When was the last time we critiqued how a recent rocket/satellite was launched or how a new hydrogen-based car should be made? Yet we all have been SME (subject matter experts) at judging how Sachin (cricketer) should have played a match, or how Maniratnam (a film director) should have directed a movie, or the best style of biryani. In fact, very few categories/topics have innovated based on consumers or the common man being at the driving wheel of how the category evolves (example: Sports, Movies, Fashion and the well-known – Food). We all have been judges and there is no right or wrong choice. It is this aspect of democracy that has fascinated me in choosing a science driven, yet acutely consumer engaged category such as food science.
When I finished my 12th grade and was ready to look for my next career pursuits, my sister helped guide me with her perspective since she was already enrolled in Biotechnology at Anna University. This way, I was able to make informed choices about the upcoming curriculum (Food & Pharmaceutical Technology) at Anna University besides other science driven streams. At each stage of my Bachelors and Masters, much of my interest in Food Science was fuelled both by self-curiosity as well as the supportive mentorship of my Professors, Dr. Usha Antony (Anna University) and Dr. Stephanie Clark (Iowa State University). I was able to understand that food science is part art and part science. You need to appreciate the scientist in you and equally look at your products with the mind of an artist.
Being a consumer centric category, the technology and consumer preferences change with time. So, it is vital to be part of recognized organizations pertaining to Food Science. In the US and globally, The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) acts as a forum for professionals and students to collaborate, learn and contribute to innovative solutions in food. Engagements in-person or through IFT, would enable one to get a deeper understanding of emerging technologies in food, and how consumer behavior impacts it.
Tell us about your career path
My first break happened at Kellogg’s when I reached out to a LinkedIn contact at Kellogg’s HR, as I had not received an acceptance or rejection for my application. After a casual call with the hiring manager, it ended up with an apology, an offer of internship in the product & consumer science team at Kellogg’s in Battle Creek Michigan. So that was my first big break/ foot into the door.
- Take Risks – Don’t take the safe route
After completing my internship and while looking for roles, I had applied on a ‘Contact us’ webform of a startup company in upstate New York. I was called for an interview and eventually offered a job to join as the First Research & Development member of the company. While my peers had got offers from PepsiCo and Nestle, I was working for a company that no one knew and had to spell the name out to everyone saying, “C for Charlie, Hotel, Oscar, Bravo, Alpha, November, India” (C-H-O-B-A-N-I). Yes, having taken a plunge, I was the first R&D member of Chobani, which catapulted Greek Yogurt in the US. My experience at Chobani has enabled me to learn and grow in a hyper fast company leading all innovation platforms at the company. Till date, my experience at Chobani has given me an experience worthy of decades of experience at a major company. In the future, this has paved a way for my colleagues to understand the level of product, consumer understanding and innovations that I can deliver.
- Don’t fear the unknown – be equally aware of your strengths
Food Scientists are quite specific to their area of expertise, the pet food scientist seldom enters the consumer front; the dairy scientist will rarely venture into plant-based foods, the confectionery expert will not venture into the protein category. For a field that is quite diverse as human behavior, it would be impossible to learn all aspects of the food industry or categories. So always look at the bigger picture of where your learnings can enable the growth of the organization further and where you will look to expand your learning while being a part of the organization. For instance: I had experience in sensory science and cereals, but accepted a role at Chobani making Greek yogurts. Later, at WhiteWave foods, I managed the Dairy products category while learning an entirely new category of plant-based foods and dairy alternatives. So be open to offer and equally learn something in any role that you pursue.
3. Find a mentor and be a mentor to somebody
We get too engaged in our daily jobs that we rarely have time to call someone without a purpose. But try to find a mentor, someone whom you can call in a few minutes’ notice and ask for advice, career guidance, etc. Someone whom you can converse with in your field and not fear to share your doubts etc. This will always further your career. Equally, try to be a mentor or at least help others who are trying to start their career or want to thrive in your category. This could be as simple as responding to occasional queries you get from students, mutual contacts, potential applicants looking for job/contacts etc. on LinkedIn.
How did you get your first break?
My first break happened at Kellogg’s when I reached out to a LinkedIn contact at Kellogg’s HR, as I had not received an acceptance or rejection for my application.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
At the outset, my suggestion to anyone looking for roles as an international candidate, would be to do everything to enable your skills, higher than others in the role. This could be through learning engagements (webinars, training, certification programs) as well as through hands-on experience (informational meetings, internships, volunteering etc.). Being an international student comes with quite a few disadvantages – Visa sponsorship, culture fit, language barriers, etc. So, the key trait that has helped me excel this far is by expanding my expertise to instill a level of certainty in the hiring manager that this role cannot have a better candidate than myself. Your hiring manager should see beyond the disadvantages of securing a visa sponsorship for you. So naturally, I had to equip myself with US Visa laws, timeline for approvals, etc. to be able to negotiate how hiring candidates like me would not negatively impact, but enable the organization further to get skilled talent.
Reach Out – Extend your arm and ask for help
To my surprise, I had to move away from my shy, introverted nature and realized that I had to reach out to get a response. Instead of relying on mere online applications, I used to reach out to hiring managers, send personalized emails and even follow up if I haven’t got a response. One needs to understand that there is a thin line between perseverance and annoyance. So, gauge your follow-ups in a way that is courteous and not annoying to hiring managers.
Where do you work now?
Danone North America. I work remotely from Toronto, Canada and manage the largest yogurt portfolio of the US – Brand Dannon, Activia, YoCrunch, Danimals, DanActive and Danonino.
What problems do you solve?
I manage a team of scientists located in the US on Innovations, Renovations, Productivity, Business Continuity for dairy yogurt brands at Danone USA
What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?
To be a good food scientist, you need to be a mad scientist and a brave artist. It’s a combination of the two rare skills. Since food is very democratized, you need to study your consumer, their likes & dislikes, what is next in technology and how consumers see these innovations (Ex: precision fermentation). There is no merit in developing the perfect food if it is considered equivalent to a pill in a consumer’s perception. So, you need to ideate, conceptualize, and prototype concepts that are relatable, not alien to the consumer. For this, you need to study, observe, and learn how to stay relevant in the category. It requires a food scientist to be prevalent in emerging science & technologies, consumer research, food and ingredient trends, look at past history of failed foods and concepts, understand food regulations, food safety, industrial feasibility etc. What is tantamount to delivering this is to be willing to reach out to relevant resources and address these topics than create a concept behind closed doors.
What’s a typical day like?
On days that I work remotely, I connect with my team, go over projects, timelines, their approach methodology and watchouts. It’s a collaborative approach where experience of managers reinforces the R&D concept, recipes, process methods, timelines that my R&D team members build. We review samples which involve a lot of tastings and feedback, look at new ingredients that enable better products. We get briefed by our consumer science team on new trends, consumer behavior, how our products are performing in the marketplace, consumer feedback and complaints. We review the next line of innovations with the brand team, review ongoing renovation and productivity projects with our project and operations team. Twice a year, we would go on trend treks. It is a 3–4-day immersion where we choose a city, say NYC, and explore everything from Art displays to upcoming stores, food trends, restaurants and incubator programs. It sounds like a lot of fun, but those in this field can understand the overwhelming sensory fatigue that sets in when you try 20 stores in a day.
What is it you love about this job?
Every Food scientist or product developer would say that it brings them immense joy to see the products they develop on the store shelves. Keep in mind that it’s like making a movie, not everything hits the screens. Those that do, reach after several concepts, iterations, opinions, revisions, challenges, and industrial validations. So, everyone is part of the process – my team, others outside the team, cross functional members, agencies, retailers and even the consumer. So, to deliver another healthy food in the category after such a democratic process and getting the product noticed and reviewed by consumers is something that I love about this job.
How does your work benefit society?
I work in the category of refrigerated foods – the most prime region of the grocery store often called the periphery which is set aside for high traffic foods. These foods are often unprocessed or minimally processed and held in high regard as being healthy foods. Yogurt is always considered as a healthy food in spite of being a live food, yet offering nutritional qualities such as essential fats, protein, and fiber (optional). Besides this, yoghurt holds live and active culture and occasionally probiotics that are proven to deliver some beneficial effects to the consumer (Ex: Relieve digestive discomfort, provide immunity etc.). Today, consumers have acute focus on what foods nourish them. Yogurts and live cultured, fermented foods can realize this dream of how consumer’s preference to eat healthy is not hindered by an equal expectation to have something fun and enjoyable at the end of the day (people still enjoy them as a snack rather than as a supplement that they must eat). So, our work benefits the society as we can provide nutritious food yet help them form a habit of regular consumption, not something that you eat only to resolve a problem.
In an overall context, I also feel equally proud that the entire team of various food scientists (across categories) work towards making food more delicious, nutritious, accessible, and safe. It may be a popular topic of debate on processed foods (FYI yogurt is also processed but still nutritious), GMO vs. Non-GMO, Fat, calories etc. Yet, from the other side, Food Technologists appreciate the attention and concern towards their food. That is the way we can innovate responsibly, by being questioned and critiqued. Each food has an occasion and a quantity that can be consumed, the law dictates the details to be listed on the pack and we continue to educate our family & friends on how to read labels, make informed choices etc., yet don’t feel annoyed when someone accuses us of making processed food. We look at it as – someone is watching us, let’s hear them, educate them (if necessary) to make better food.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
When I was an R&I scientist at Chobani, we were required to develop a couple of concepts for a new product platform innovation. My experience at Kellogg’s enabled me to create the concept of Chobani Flip which is a yogurt combined with crunch mixins. Since there were several products already in the market on Yogurt + crunch concept, I went back to my roots in consumer understanding to combine concepts that are engaging flavor wise but made with natural ingredients and reinforced with a nostalgic factor. So, we created concepts anchored on a product experience that consumers can relate to. Ex: The Chobani Flip coco loco flavor was designed based on a popular coconut + chocolate candy bar. We paired Coconut yogurt with coconut flakes in yogurt + honey roasted almond slices, chunks of dark chocolate. Immediately, consumers were able to resonate with a market brand of candy bar but in a healthier version. The Flip brand catapulted to a 200 Million dollar brand.
Similarly, I had created a concept of the first yogurt sweetened with natural high intensity sweeteners – Stevia and Monk fruit. At the time, the market was filled with high intensity artificial sweeteners (Sucralose, Aspartame, AceK etc.). We launched the “Chobani Simply 100” that proceeded to garner 1% of yogurt sales in the US after the first 6 months of launch.
As a combined result of the above two platform innovations, Chobani was awarded the IRI product pacesetter award for launching two innovations in yogurt, each securing USD 100 Million in sales. These two concepts are very close to me as one (Simply 100) is based on my master’s thesis and Flip is based on my experiences with consumer understanding and pairings of cereals and inclusions at Kelloggs.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Compared to other industries, the food industry offers a relatively low pay. So, passion is probably why a lot of us continue to be excited and play a vital role in creating products that consumers see when they open the doors of their refrigerator or kitchen cabinet. At the end of the day, choose your career wisely, either based on your interest or where you excel. There is no golden rule at the end of the day. I know many friends who were passionate about Food Science but chose alternate careers in Information Tech (after bachelor’s in food tech) due to personal reasons. At the end of the day, being flexible to career choices is a good habit, but make sure you gauge your interest and choose one that doesn’t make you feel monotonous. Try to get into situations that you are not comfortable with as that can enable you to see an ability in yourself that you haven’t realized yet. If you do choose a career in food science, you now know someone to reach out to (me) who is ready to pay it forward.
Personally, having spent a couple years in India recently, I am settling into the routines at my new role in Canada. Career-wise, I am excited to manage my new teams and be part of a hands-on product development role at Danone and create new cutting-edge innovation in the dairy and dairy alternative category – something that I missed during my senior leadership roles in India.
I believe the landscape of food science still needs to improve better in India. During my period of employment and consultations in India, I realized that companies still don’t realize the value and potential of R&D in food. Most consider that a spreadsheet of formulation is all that R&D does. Companies still need to realize that innovation is not a 9am to 5pm job and they need to enable better opportunities to link consumer understanding and food innovation. The fabric of relation between R&D teams & other departments need to provide better share-and-tell learnings to enable future growth in food. I think this awareness is important to both food scientists and food companies in India.