Monday, April 09, 2007

General Mills seeks the next big idea
By Matt Mckinney, Star Tribune (on-line)

This article was suggested by Michaeleen Kruger, a real thought lead at Cargill. It is a great example of how major company is deploying Open Innovation.

The company behind Cheerios, Yoplait and Hamburger Helper wants someone out there to tinker their way into the next great food idea. The $12.5 billion company said it will lend its strength to anyone who has a new technology or a new product that makes a good fit for the corporation. The fine print: the technology must have a patent or patent pending, and the new product should be on the market somewhere in the world.

"I come at it from the assumption that the next big advance that's really going to reshape our industry has already happened," said Peter Erickson, senior vice president for innovation technology and quality. "What we've tried to do is create the capability that allows us to get out there and find that next advance ahead of our competition."

The company's push for new partners, which they're calling the Worldwide Innovation Network, is also a push to expand its already growing presence internationally. General Mills operates in 30 markets and exports to more than 100 countries. It hopes to find the best ideas in those markets, before competitors do.

"We've had a very long history of working with external partners that have been largely centered in the food industry," Erickson said. "A big part of this push is to get outside of the mainstream partners that we've worked with."

The company has also had a presence at recent food shows from Florida to Japan, looking for new technology and new products, said Jeff Bellairs, director of the Worldwide Innovation Network.

"We're looking at a global basis, literally around the world," he said.

Play for Yoplait paid off

The company has long folded others' efforts into its empire, beginning with the 1978 deal in which General Mills obtained the licensing rights to Yoplait from the Michigan Cottage Cheese Co. That firm had acquired the rights from Sodima, a French dairy cooperative. Today the company's Yoplait division sells $1 billion of yogurt annually.

The company is hoping to lure food inventions through its website (www, where a video plays up the company's history and size.

General Mills' growth has relied on a slew of new products every year, about 300 new food products last year alone, according to the company's annual report. General Mills, whose brands include Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Green Giant, Old El Paso and Häagen-Dazs, expects to launch 100 products in the United States in the first half of this year alone, including Progresso soups with 50 percent less sodium and single-serve pouches of dried apple chips.

The idea mirrors some of the company's internal practices. It already relies on outside experts to dramatically increase its odds of finding solutions to thorny technical problems, Bellairs said. The company belongs to a network of about 200,000 scientists and engineers around the world who assist General Mills' 1,200 technology employees.

Bellairs said that he has worked closely with business teams within General Mills, learning from them what sort of things they would like to know more about.

"We are looking for things that fit with their strategies," he said.

The company is specifically looking for ideas related to core product lines, including snacks, cereal, refrigerated doughs and yogurt. It might take three months to review individual submissions.

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