Gut feeling

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Related tags: Amino acid

Living out of a suitcase with only his mobile phone and laptop for company hold no fears for DMV International's Rick de Waard, says Elaine Watson

One in 10 people employed by DMV International works in research and development (R&D), which tells you something about its priorities as a business.

But that doesn't mean that its strategy is dictated by men in white coats, says R&D manager for nutritionals Dr Rick de Waard. "We don't say to marketing: here's a nice concept we've developed in the lab, go and find a market for it!"

The challenge facing everyone developing functional foods is that progress can be frustratingly slow in a market that is moving incredibly fast, he points out. While blue-sky research is all very well, manufacturers have to prioritise spending on projects that will deliver. And that means collaborating at every level, through co-operations with universities, research institutes or other companies, and by working with sales and marketing people, internally and externally. "Each platform in DMV has a multi-disciplinary business team that sets tactics to achieve the strategy," says de Waard. "We feed projects and ideas into a portfolio management system and score them against key criteria. We can then pursue the ones that are the most promising."

And right now, the smart money is on bioactives, medical nutrition and infant nutrition, he says. The core ingredients are proteins, protein hydrolysates, bioactive peptides, bioactive proteins such as lactoferrin, and dietary fat concentrates.

"But this doesn't mean we won't look at anything else. It's just where we're focusing our efforts. For me, some of the most exciting ingredients are glutamine peptides. When people are ill, their glutamine levels go down. This can cause gastrointestinal disorders, increase the risk of infection and prolong illness. However, you can't use free amino acid glutamine to tackle the problem because you can't heat it. Glutamine peptides, on the other hand, can be heat treated, so they represent a big opportunity."

Another priority is developing whey protein concentrates with amino acid profiles similar to those in breast milk for use in infant nutrition products.

However, the ingredient that's currently grabbing all the headlines is blemish-busting Praventin, which is derived from whey protein concentrate. Unlike other products offering desperate and spotty teenagers salvation, Praventin is not laced with harsh chemicals and does not have unpleasant side effects, says de Waard. "We're getting global interest. You can use it in dietary supplements, but also in yoghurts and drinks. Four human studies show people taking it have seen a significant reduction in their number of blemishes over eight weeks. If they stop taking it, the blemishes return. It's a great example of an ingredient developed through close collaboration between marketing and R&D."

Innovium, DMV's innovation centre for ingredients for food and nutrition products, is the hub that houses this creative partnership. Located in the heart of the Wageningen Food Valley region in the Netherlands, the centre houses a laboratory, test kitchens and pilot production facilities. Its design is open plan, says de Waard. "R&D and marketing work side by side. We all use hot desks so that no one gets stuck in one place. The design of the building helps the creative process."

De Waard has impressive academic credentials in the fields of immunology, gut physiology and nutrition, and has stints as a research associate at Stanford University in California and Columbia University in New York state on his CV.

He could have pursued a career in academia but was headhunted by DMV (a subsidiary of dairy giant Campina), and became an immunologist in its nutrition and health department before he had time to mull over his game plan. In retrospect, this was not a bad thing, he concludes. "What I do now is applied science. The end game isn't a paper in a journal: it has direct consequences for consumers."

His subsequent progress up the ranks at DMV has been rapid, with his next step likely to take him further into marketing and business management, or into R&D and quality control.

The diversity of the job is what gets him out of bed in the morning: "One day you can be dealing with patents, another with regulations, and another on new product development. The reward comes from putting vision into practice. I've got one foot in R&D and the other in business."

Travelling is part of the job, which means living out of a suitcase with your laptop and a mobile phone for company. It's a lifestyle that broadens the mind but plays havoc with your body clock, he admits. "I'm always in different time zones so I sometimes work right through the night because my hours are all over the place."

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