2021 R&D Team of the Year: Talking Rain

July 15, 2021
The 29-year-old beverage Sparkling Ice added alcohol in the pandemic year.

For the research and development team at Talking Rain Beverage Co., maker of Sparkling Ice beverage, creativity is king. In fact, the first two words of the department’s three-word motto – Discover, Create, Protect – refer to creativity.

“We were conducting an exercise about four years ago to come up with a vision statement, and these three words kept coming up,” says Jagriti Sharma, vice president of research and development for the company, based in Preston, Wash. “So now everything we do is related to one of these three words.”

Sharma explains that the first word in the motto, “discover,” speaks to the team’s drive to ask a lot of questions and seek solutions that have not been tried before. That plays into the second word, “create,” which Sharma says drives the team’s efforts to come up with new and appealing beverage flavors. The last word of the motto, “protect,” refers to protecting brand integrity and product quality.

Talking Rain is our 2021 R&D Team of the Year in the medium-size company category. Their recognized efforts came during what in many ways was a remarkable year.

In 2020 the team’s creativity led to one of the company’s most successful launches, Sparkling Ice Spiked hard seltzer. The product, which is the first alcoholic beverage in the 29-year-old line of Sparkling Ice products, combines sparkling water and real fruit flavor and contains 4% alcohol by volume. Sparkling Ice Spiked contains no sugar and only 80 calories and comes in four flavors: Cherry Lime Chiller, Lemonade Refresher, Ruby Fizz and Strawberry Citrus Smash.

“For us, it was something we had never done. It was new in every sense of the word,” Sharma says, adding that the company started a subsidiary, Beverage Innovation Corp., to launch Sparkling Ice Spiked. “But the team pulled it together in record time – it was the fastest innovation for us. We went from formulation to market in 10 months.”

The team didn’t stop there, though. They also developed and launched Talking Rain Essentials Hydration, an alkaline water product with a 9.5 pH level and minerals and electrolytes, and Talking Rain Elevate, a performance water that provides hydration, vitamins and caffeine.

“All of these products were consumer-led,” Sharma says. “We have a big insights team that is constantly looking for what consumers want, and hydration stands out. These products fit that consumer obsession.”

One of the strengths of the Talking Rain R&D team is diversity, Sharma believes. The 25-person team – which includes microbiologists, statisticians, biochemists, engineers, analytical chemists, sensory scientists, nutritionists, quality professionals and food scientists – comes from geographic areas as diverse as India, Russia and Israel.

The team’s geographic diversity is matched by its diversity of personality types. Sharma says the group frequently takes personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and learns that the entire spectrum of personalities is represented.

“The cool part is all of them coming together to make a beverage and challenging each other from different perspectives,” Sharma says. “We all know designing a beverage is science as well as art. The team brings it together very well. And it’s a very tight team – the synergies they create are phenomenal.”

To encourage creativity, the team regularly conducts events to stimulate conversation and idea sharing. For example, once a month the group holds what Sharma calls a “brain trust.”

During this meeting, the group analyzes a problem someone is facing and tries to come up with a solution. Because the team includes a wide range of scientific disciplines, the problem is viewed from many angles, which sometimes leads to outside-the-box solutions.

Another regular creativity-driving exercise is the “brain steering” meeting, which occurs every six weeks.

“In brain steering everyone is given an equal opportunity to participate, and we focus on culture and values,” Sharma says. “We ask questions like, ‘What was your biggest opportunity?’ and share our experiences.”

Another part of the success of Talking Rain’s R&D is its homegrown sensory program. The company began the program about six years ago by partnering with a network of geographically spaced sensory labs. Eventually they developed the Holistic Consumer Score, a proprietary method of determining which flavors consumers prefer.

An evolution of consumer testing is a tool that examines consumer eye motion and skin responses to judge a product’s desirability.

“That tool gives us excellent data,” Sharma says. “We found that when consumers say something, that’s not necessarily enough information. They might say they like the taste of a product, but we know there’s also an emotional response to each product. So it’s important to evaluate the emotional response, too, and this tool does that by measuring eye tracking and skin responses.”

Another proprietary tool in the Talking Rain R&D toolbox is a set of predictive stability methods. The color, taste, carbonation and other characteristics of a beverage need to meet consumer expectations, so it’s essential that the product meets specifications through the end of shelf life.

“For example, we noticed that when we transport products, the colors can start falling out, so we had to figure out how to fix that,” Sharma says. “So the team put the product in their cars and drove around in the summer heat to see how that changed things. We went through a lot of trial and error and finally came up with some methods that create reproducible results and predict stability very well.”

COVID did not prevent the team from doing its work. No more than two people were allowed in the lab at once, and some people worked remotely, but the lab was functional throughout the pandemic. To maintain the team feeling, some staff hiked together on the weekends or went for evening bike rides.

“And we played a lot of online games together,” Sharma says. “We work closely, but also we are fellow Rain Makers and friends, not just coworkers.”

She says this R&D Team of the Year award is recognition of the hard work, creativity and teamwork of the group.

“We are incredibly proud of this R&D team. I honestly look forward to each Monday, because I know I will come in to work with such bright, creative individuals,” Sharma says. “Seeing these young people coming together and creating such awesome products is truly rewarding.”

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