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With $42M to spend on research and development, Dr Robert Fisher, Tate & Lyle's head of global R&D, spent a little time with Elaine Watson. They talked core competencies

Bob Fisher loves his job. "I always knew I wanted to be in applied science. I'm a nuts and bolts kind of guy. I don't believe in science for the sake of science. I love to create products for consumers because I want to make a difference. I have this sense of urgency. I always want to do more."

For all his enthusiasm, however, he remains pretty circumspect. Put it this way, Fisher is not the kind of guy that has bosses in a cold sweat wondering whether he will inadvertently spill the beans on his latest R&D project to a journalist. For readers wondering what comes next after sucralose, he isn't telling.

He can talk in generic terms, of course. "Obesity is a continuing trend and we are also doing a tremendous amount of work in terms of fibres and digestive health, prebiotics and the immune system." As to whether Tate & Lyle is working on completely new molecules such as sucralose, which generates a substantial percentage of group profits on just 4% of its sales, Fisher won't say.

The more immediate focus, he says, is exploiting "more incremental opportunities, as we learn and evaluate the functionality of different materials that are already consumed" (and are not therefore subject to the Novel Food Regulation).

"How do we play to our core competency in carbohydrates and what type of other functional ingredients and activities could we marry with them?"

A good example is the recent innovation Promitor. It is a soluble corn fibre with prebiotic qualities offering superior process stability, says Fisher.

Longer term, Tate & Lyle is also looking at inflammation, a root cause of many conditions from arthritis to heart disease.

R&D spending

While the bulk of the firm's R&D cash (a cool $42M in the year to March 31, 2007) is spent in-house, a large amount is allocated to developing partnerships and external opportunities.

A good example is the company's £4.5M investment in a new nutrition and health research centre at King's College London, which will ensure that Tate & Lyle remains at the cutting edge of research on gastrointestinal health, carbohydrate metabolism, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disorders.

Another is the partnership with Microbia Precision Engineering in the US to develop fermentation-derived renewable ingredients, also struck in late 2006.

Money is allocated according to "how much innovation we want, what quality improvements we want to make, what type of cost savings we are targeting and what technical platforms we need to invest in", says Fisher.

As for assessing which ideas are worth pursuing, the company follows a classical stage gate process, which helps ensure that resources are allocated to products with the best chance of commercial success.

There should always be a balance of projects that will deliver in the next 18 months, along with more blue sky projects that may not deliver for three to five years, adds Fisher.

Working in industry "changes you from being a scientist to a technical businessperson", says Fisher, who spent 19 years at Campbell Soup Company after securing his PhD in food science at Rutgers University in the US. "Tate & Lyle's chief executive Iain Ferguson has significant experience in R&D, so it's very high on his priority list. But he still expects us to deliver as a business partner."

Indeed, the pressure on Fisher to deliver products that will continue to reduce Tate & Lyle's exposure to commodity markets and increase its percentage of value-added products must feel pretty intense, given the firm's recent series of profits warnings on the back of plunging sugar profits and the weak US dollar.

However, Fisher has not marched in and changed everything since his arrival in December 2006. "My first few weeks were spent getting to know the business. I wasn't going to start changing things just for the sake of it."

Open innovation

As for open innovation, a buzzword phrase currently doing the rounds in the food industry, Tate & Lyle has a good balance of external and internal viewpoints, says Fisher, who recently scooped a leadership award from his old university's alumni society for his work to bridge the gap between industry and academia.

"Good ideas come from everywhere, so you have to have the right connections to identify them." In the first instance, that means ensuring you have a truly global perspective, something Tate & Lyle aspires to with R&D centres in Decatur, Illinois (US), Shanghai, China and Lille (France).

However, the internet has also brought scientists around the world far closer together, says Fisher, who considerably expanded his contacts book during a recent stint as executive director of the International Life Sciences Institute, North America.

"Over the past 26 years, I've built a significant network of contacts. Tate & Lyle also has a long history of forging partnerships with other companies and academic institutions."

Fisher also sits on the advisory board of Tate & Lyle Ventures, which is continually evaluating opportunities that could enable it to enter new markets or add products, technologies and knowledge more efficiently than if it only grew organically.

However, open innovation only works when it's a win-win for everyone, says Fisher, who spent several years after he left Campbell Soup at a small company called John I Haas working on hops, which contains natural antibacterial agents with applications extending far beyond brewing.

"I know from experience that as a small company with new technology, the first thing you have to do before talking to any big players is make sure you've got all the appropriate intellectual property in place."