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2022 R&D Team of the Year: SunOpta

June 27, 2022
SunOpta leads off our 2022 crop of R&D Teams of the Year, with Just Egg and Sophie's Kitchen featured in coming months.

As our 2022 R&D Survey indicates, product development is returning to some form of normalcy after the pandemic. True innovation remains hard to come by, and companies achieving it should be lauded for their efforts.

That's the annual goal of our R&D Teams of the Year competition. This year, we pitted teams against each other in small-, medium- and large-company categories, putting their essays on a web-based poll and asking our readers to choose the winners. 421 of you voted and chose SunOpta over Ocean Spray in the large category, Just Egg over Bellisio Foods in the medium category and Sophie's Kitchen over Take Two Foods in the small category.

Even our runners-up had compelling stories of innovation, and they deserve a bow, too. But today we profile our first 2022 winner, SunOpta, with Just Egg to follow next month and Sophie's Kitchen in September.

R&D Team: SunOpta

SunOpta Inc. is a company in transformation. Twenty years ago it was an agricultural cooperative focused mostly on soybeans and partly on procuring ingredients from around the world and reselling them. But no more.

The name is not familiar to consumers and maybe not even to some food processors, but it is to a large number of foodservice customers and retailers – as well as to some food companies that employ SunOpta’s contract manufacturing services.

With nine plants in the U.S. and Canada (one more under construction in Texas), SunOpta is transforming itself into a processor of value-added products, including recently acquired branded nondairy milks, and has a goal of doubling its current $813 million in sales by 2025.

New product development is key to both the transformation and the doubling in size. With a staffed-up and consolidated R&D department and a brand-new R&D center in Eden Prairie, Minn., those goals now seem within reach.

The company has two main business lines—plant-based products and fruit-based products—and up to last month, separate R&D staffs. Plant-based products are heavily weighted toward liquids for now, especially coffee creamers but with nondairy milks coming on strong.

Fruit-based products have been fruit strips and bars, but that unit just debuted a frozen smoothie bowl platform, some made with dragonfruit, passionfruit and pineapple and topped with blueberries, diced fruits or granola—which portends future developments.

The R&D group serves disparate markets and customers: foodservice, private label, contract manufacturing, ingredients and recently branded retail products.

“The Innovation Center was a huge addition, especially the pilot plant,” says Bryan Clark, senior vice president of R&D and quality assurance. “We used to go outside for pilot plant work. This cuts 8-12 weeks off the product development cycle.”

Called EPIC, for Eden Prairie Innovation Center, the new 65,000-sq.-ft. building was just moved into in April. It’s also the new corporate headquarters; the old SunOpta was headquartered in Mississauga, Ontario. EPIC enabled the consolidation of the formerly separate R&D staffs, which now number 19 food scientists, five packaging engineers and four process engineers, plus quality assurance.

Clark, a five-year veteran who formerly headed the plant-based group, is in charge of the overall team. Heidi Teoh, a four-year employee who formerly headed the fruit team, is vice president of R&D.

In addition to the pilot plant, the Innovation Center has an analytical lab and a barista bar – “not for the employees, but to test samples and simulate the conditions of our foodservice clients’ shops,” stresses Clark. Servicing the coffee servers is a huge part of the current business.

Product development at SunOpta follows a stage-gate process. “Can we make it? Can we sell it? Can we make money at it?” explains Clark.

The week starts with a Monday morning meeting called “R&D stand up,” a mile-high overview of projects, plant visits and customers that are coming in that week. Tuesdays and Thursdays have “progress and challenge” meetings, in which R&D people bring in their products and projects for exposure, updates and collaboration, often with marketing, sales and manufacturing representatives in attendance.

The processes are a little different when the product is for retail, for foodservice or for a private label or contract manufacturing client.

Foodservice currently is the largest share of the business. Branded products account for less than 10% of sales currently, but intentions are to grow that quickly. One shot in the arm came middle of last year when Hain Celestial sold its non-dairy beverage brands Dream and Westsoy to SunOpta. Those brands already were branching out of soy and into other plant-based “milks,” and SunOpta has accelerated the growth into milks from oats, almond, coconut, rice and hemp.

In particular, “Oats have been a huge shot of adrenaline,” says Clark, providing not only a milk product but a good base for other products, including coffee creamers, and in the future possibly cultured products such as cream cheese, kefir and yogurt alternatives. The oat business is vertically integrated, with SunOpta sourcing them from farmers, using them for its own needs and turning them into ingredients for other food processors.

Projects in the near future include rebranding of the Dream and Westsoy brands (the latter being renamed West Life), a plant- and fruit-based smoothie starter and a new branded oat creamer named Sown. From the fruit side comes keto frozen smoothie blends. “And the private label [clients] are really excited about some innovations in our [fruit products] pipeline, things that are multicultural, next-level clean label, even savory,” says Teoh.

She adds, “We’re on the front end of what I think is going to be a really exciting few years.”

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