What do plant-based dairy and lipstick have in common? Vegetable-based innovation. AAK has opened a new customer innovation center in Richmond, California, adjacent San Francisco, to support bakery, dairy, plant-based foods and beauty/personal care innovation. Leveraging its expertise in specialty vegetable fats and oils, the site will serve as a co-development hub in the Bay Area where customers and AAK specialists can collaborate on new products, upgrades of existing products and creation of cost-optimizing solutions -- from ideation to launch.
Richmond is the largest of the company's 15 customer innovation centers (the size of the investment was not disclosed), including 2,00 square feet of co-development space, and features a bakery lab, dairy and plant-based foods lab, and personal care lab. (Personal care operations are also carried out at AAK's Port Newark, New Jersey, plant, while food-focused innovation takes place at sites in Hillside, New Jersey, and Louisville.)
The product development teams at the Richmond site have access to equipment equivalent to that used by its customers, allowing them to address formulas, ingredient statements, nutrition, processes and products in a real-world scenario.
The Richmond site was acquired in 2016 when AAK purchased California Oils Corporation from Mitsubishi Corporation of Japan. In developing its new facilities, the company completely renovated the facility, including new floors and walls and energy conserving technology, according to company representatives.
“AAK has over 15 Customer Innovation Centers worldwide and has opened multiple locations across the U.S. over the last several years,” said Octavio Diaz de Leon, president of AAK USA and AAK North Latin America. “Our Richmond Customer Innovation Center investment offers an additional 2,000 square feet of co-development space and delivers on our commitment to providing our customer-partners coast-to-coast service and support. We accelerate innovation using AAK’s Co-Development approach, and our expansive team of fats and oils, bakery, dairy, plant-based foods and personal care experts, all coming together to create real-world formulation solutions.”
AAK, based in Malmö, Sweden, more than 3,700 employees and operates 22 production facilities and customization plants and sales offices in more than 25 countries.
Cross-category Collaboration & Innovation
AAK's work in the plant-based foods and personal care spaces creates unique cross-pollination of insights among technical teams, the company noted.
With both groups housed under one roof, scientists are able to more easily transfer knowledge gained from one category to another.
“The greatest benefit of working closely with colleagues of different applications backgrounds is the opportunity to share knowledge and experience,” said Steve Council, Richmond customer innovation manager, AAK USA. “By connecting similar formulation strategies from seemingly unrelated products, our open collaboration has led to a number of breakthrough product development concepts. In Richmond, we continue this style of teamwork and collective learning, delivering further insights and innovative solutions for our customers.”
The personal care facilities were built with input from Benjamin Schwartz, AAK's senior personal care applications specialist, who often interfaces with clients.
The personal care labs at the Richmond site have the capability to develop sunscreens and color cosmetics (including lipstick) that leverage pigment dispersions using shea butter emollients. The company also uses the key material to develop skin care, like lip balms and lotions, and hair care projects, among others.
The application of shea butter in products offers not only enhanced functionality and sensory appeal, but provides socioeconomic development for West African communities, Jones noted. In fact, brands featuring shea butter regularly tout support of local communities in their marketing and philanthropic activities.
Plant-based Foods, Dairy & Bakery Drive Innovation Explosion
AAK's operates in a categories such as chocolate and confectionery, bakery, dairy, special nutrition and food service.
The dairy and plant-based foods lab features the equipment required to develop dairy products using vegetable fats rather than dairy fat, as well as 100% plant-based foods with sensory facets equivalent to conventional counterparts. These applications offer no-cholesterol claims and sustainability credentials.
Among its recent projects was a creamy plant-based cheese that could reportedly be sliced or shredded without crumbling.
The company's technologies can also be applied to butter alternatives, cheese analogs, plant-based creamers, whipped toppings, plant-based yogurts and frozen desserts like ice cream.
In Richmond, the new AAK bakery will provide product co-development with on-trend rapid prototyping for products such as biscuits, cookies, croissants, cupcakes, cakes, donuts, dry bakery mixes, frozen baked goods, icings, pies/pie crusts, pizza crusts and flat breads.
During a virtual tour of the new site, a company representative provided the example of a recent pie crust project developed by the company, which required AAK's teams to simplify a client's formulation and eliminate palm from the ingredient list, without sacrificing on quality.
The dairy innovation space, meanwhile, focuses on projects such as plant-based butter alternatives, creamers and frozen desserts that leverage vegetable fats in place of dairy fats. The innovation is in line with a larger focus on eco-friendly, healthy alternatives to conventional dairy sources.
A typical dairy project might see the AAK team developing a clean label coffee creamer that is fully plant-based, focusing on providing the desired mouthfeel, flavor/organoleptic, color and other facets.
“The addition of our Richmond Innovation Center allows AAK to bring specialty vegetable oil solutions to our West Coast customers in a very collaborative way,” said James S. Jones, Ph.D., vice president customer innovation, plant-based foods, AAK USA. “We test AAK solutions and prove them in our customer’s products, ensuring functionality before plant trials and production."
He added, "Our experts evaluate the customer critical attributes of flavor, texture, appearance—and even sound—that impact the consumer’s organoleptic and emotional eating experience. Fats and oils are a critical component of flavor and functionality systems for many products, especially plant-based foods. We continue to improve our portfolio of customer prototypes and solutions in close collaboration with our customers. Not only do we help them with their own ideas, we also bring our customer-partners new product ideas.”
Co-development requires close collaboration. Therefore, AAK has developed programs to bring customers and AAK specialists closer together.
The AAK Academy allows the company to show customers how ingredients work in formulations and to deepen their technical knowledge through non-commercial education.
Meanwhile, its AAK Innovation Days, held either at AAK sites or at customer facilities, focus on ideation to spur ideas for innovation pipelines.
“Now that Richmond is fully operational, we are hosting a series of Innovation Days to inspire West Coast customer-partners with a range of new concepts and ideas,” said Tom Welsch, regional sales manager, AAK USA. “We create these highly customized events to aid specific customer needs and accelerate speed to market of innovative new products, product improvements and cost savings for our West Coast customer-partners.”