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How to Work with a Food Scientist

How to Work with a Food Scientist

Written by Brian Chau, Principal Advisor at Chau Time

Hiring a food scientist or food product developer can be a daunting challenge. These are the people who transform your food idea into reality. Read more to better understand: how a food scientist within product development operates; how to use a project proposal as a tool to set expectations for your overall vision; and explore the options on how to best collaborate with a food scientist. 

Understand the Framework:

There are a lot of job titles for food scientists including: food technologist, product developer, food specialist, culinologist, culinary developer, formulator, or R&D scientist/chef. For simplicity, food scientist will imply any titles aforementioned. 

When looking for a food scientist, specify that you are looking for someone who can do product development from concept to commercialization. A food scientist with product development experience has the knowledge to help take your idea, create a prototype, and provide a formula that will be commercially viable. Some specialize in product development and not scale-up; that may be fine depending on your needs, but we will focus on a food scientist who can do both. A good food scientist should also be a good product manager, balancing different parameters that affect development from costs to scalability. Their end goal is to deliver a product formulation that is likely to be reproduced at scale while also being food safe. 

What a food scientist will help you do:

  • Make suggestions regarding how to improve the product and provide critical feedback in a very technical and structured approach
  • Tell you that a request is outside the bounds of regulations, food safety, or even scientific principles
  • Assist in the development process
  • Work with an existing manufacturing line

What a food scientist will NOT help you do:

  • Tell you how to reverse engineer intellectual property that a competitor took years to develop
  • Tell you the best flavor (as that is often very subjective and the food scientist may not fit your target audience)
  • Make the final decisions for you and your brand
  • Engineer new equipment for scaling

The first step in working with a food scientist is to co-create a project proposal to set clear expectations and understand how to go through the product development process.

The Project Proposal; Setting Expectations: 

Any good food scientist should best work within the framework you provide them. You provide the guardrails and expectations for your brand. What guides the conversation is understanding that you provide a range of values or priorities that will allow the food scientist to help you better develop the product or inform you about the issues you are to expect on the feasibility of your request. Here is a list of parameters to discuss:

Commercialization: 

Arguably one of the most crucial parameters, and is what differentiates a food scientist from a chef. How you scale up products through equipment is based on your approach and your strategy. Whether you are going to work out of a commercial kitchen or start with a contract manufacturer, a food scientist can guide you through the process. Commercialization goals should often be the first point of discussion as a food scientist will better understand how to scale the product and provide prototypes that have mimicked the commercial processes.

Product Attributes: 

Let the food scientist understand your branding by describing what kind of certifications you expect to have on your package: organic, non-GMO, Kosher, Halal, keto-friendly, high in fiber, no trans-fat, etc. What kind of ingredients do you accept or do not accept and why do you think it is important to the brand?

Packaging: 

Let the food scientist know what is your serving size, number of servings per package, and what type of package you plan to use. If you do not know these parameters, look at analogs in the market and make your best assumption.

Nutritional: 

Although this parameter overlaps with branding, the nutrition panel requires special attention. Offer a range of values for your macronutrients (ex: 8-10 grams of protein per serving size.) Based on your packaging, you can determine if you want vertical, horizontal, or linear labels. Specific nutrition claims and allergen statements will be duly noted.

Cost: 

Your cost of goods sold is important. You want to allow for a range of values here too; be specific on what you are including in your cost of goods sold by mentioning if you are referring to the case, the individual unit, or by the pallet. Look at whether you are referencing minimum order quantity or tiered pricing.

Sensory: 

Determine how many stock keeping units, what flavors, an ideal texture, and ideal look and/or color.

Shelf Life: 

Your suggestions will be an ideal range. The food scientist can tell you what to realistically expect or at least suggest a better range. Be specific on what you are looking for as there are different types of shelf-life studies between sensory, microbiological, and physical and/or chemical. 

Timeline: 

Depending on the product and what stage your business is in; you can have a quick turnaround time or anywhere between 6 and 9 months. Food scientists understand their own timelines and can either fulfill your request or tell you how reasonable or not the timeline is. 

Food scientists are not magicians. They cannot read your mind nor have a product appear out of nowhere. Product development takes time, iteration, and flexibility in making adjustments. The range of values will allow for flexibility in the development process. You don’t want to make the development so difficult that the process stalls out and your launch plans get impacted. Setting expectations allows for dialogue on what is feasible within a timely and structured manner; set priorities between parameters to make decision making easier.

When developing your project proposal, you want to understand what your needs and wants are in the negotiation table as well as the needs and wants of the prospective food scientist. You want to have an idea of how to best communicate with the food scientist and assess if there is synergy with the food scientist. Some food scientists work on a per project proposal which works out best for their project management. Others work on an hourly basis which can be valuable for quick turnaround times. Some food scientists might be open to the idea of equity and turning into a long-time partner of your organization. At the end of the day, a food scientist is a person with a particular skill set of translating science and technology of food and beverage into a commercially viable, food safe, and delicious product. Each food scientist operates under rigorous training in the sciences, but they also have their own personalities that may or may not work well with your brand. Honestly, the same principle applies to anyone you want to hire. Always be open to exploring all options before making a final decision. 

The process of working with a food scientist takes time. In building out these relationships by setting expectations and building dialogue, the path to developing your product will be less stressful. The project proposal is a tool to lay the foundation of how to work with the prospective food scientist. Remember that food scientists are people too and they cannot read your mind; they don’t understand your vision as much as you do and they have their own personalities. By understanding how they operate, you can better manage how to leverage their expertise to grow your business. You can save time in knowing you have someone who can translate the technical information for you to make a final decision. Most importantly, you managed to de-risk a critical component of your business.

Brian Chau: Food Scientist, Fungal Fanatic, and Food Systems Analyst at Chau Time. Brian is the Principal Advisor at Chau Time, his own consultation firm. He is the Co-founder of MycoKind, a food biotech company. He also sits as an advisor to food tech companies. He is working on his first book, How to Work with a Food Scientist, to help founders understand a food scientist’s capabilities and improve the understanding of how to navigate the technical world of food and beverage consumer packaged goods.