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Embracing Unexpected Opportunities

An Interview with Steven McKinney Senior Strategic Innovation Manager, Zentis Group
Jana Pijak
August 25th, 2023

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Customization, Food, Lifestyle
With over 20 years of experience, Steven McKinney is an innovative leader with a unique blend of Project Management, R&D, consumer, and technical expertise. Steven is the Senior Strategic Innovation Manager of Zentis Group and believes that true innovation comes from being unafraid of change and unexpected growth opportunities.

1. What does innovation mean to you?

Innovation to me means the future and the idea of bringing new opportunities to consumers.

2. How does your team generate new ideas?

We generate new ideas through food trends, consumer insights, and through market analysis. I try to maintain a strong focus on the overarching mega trends that are prevalent in the world and work towards supporting these trends when developing new products.

For instance, when discussing sustainability, we focus on our contributions within the food industry. Food companies are looking for sustainability opportunities when it comes to packaging and raw materials.

3. Do you have any specific rituals for resetting your team to be creative?

My current annual ritual is presenting the consumer trends for the upcoming year to both the R&D, Sales, and Marketing teams. In these trend presentations, I like to cover food trends, consume insights, and market analysis. I then charge the teams to focus development on these trends as we present innovation concepts to customers.

4. How do you identify trends and what resources do you and your team use to spot trends and consumer insights?

We rely on some analytical tools such as Mintel and Nielsen. As we continue to build our innovation leg of our organization, we are looking at A.I. concept tools and tools that provide us with social listening in order to target the right consumers for the innovation we are developing. We ultimately want to be the proactive innovation partners for our customers.

5. What is the biggest challenge you face when innovating?

Money and resources are always a big challenge. Typically, innovation is treated as a add-on to someone’s plate. R&D resources can sometimes be overwhelmed with lots of the day-to-day work that I like to call maintenance/renovation work. With that type of work, it's difficult to focus entirely on innovation. In my opinion, innovation works best when give time and dedicated team that is solely responsible for innovation and driving the company future growth plans. It can take a while for a company to see a return on investment when it comes to innovation. Many companies want the immediate return from innovation, and many are not willing to invest in innovation for the long run where it thrives better over time.

6. Has there ever been an instance where failure inspired an unexpected innovation at Zentis?

Zentis globally offers a variety of products that span from sweet to savory. In North America our portfolio as mainly been with sweet preps for dairy although we have attempted savory in the past. As the U.S. business is looking to diversify their portfolio, we are looking to that another go at savory as a way to support our future growth. We’ve already identified a demand for those types of products among our key customer base. Looking at food trends, we have identified that they consumer is looking to reduce or eliminate added sugar to their diets. With this trend, we are seeing a growing demand for savory and spicy products.

7. Has there ever been an instance where another industry outside of yours has influenced an innovation at Zentis?

Innovation is inspired by many different industries including fashion, automotive and health & wellness. For instance the color of our preps by be influenced by the Pantone color of the year (fashion), the use of upcycled ingredients (automotive – sustainability efforts and the manufacturing of EV’s) and sugar reduction (health & wellness) that supports a consumer’s health goals.
References: zentis-usa