Skip to main content
Agustí Montserrat

director of R&D at Danone Research Spain

Agustí Montserrat, who holds a degree in biological sciences from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, has been the director of Research and Development at Danone Research Spain since 2009. His professional career has always been linked to Danone, where he has held several management positions. From 1995 to 1999, he headed the Yogurt Technology Center in Madrid (SITEX) and from 1999 to 2009, worked as head of Research and Development for Danone, SA.

Food research, in particular that focusing on functional foods, nutritional supplements and nutrigenomics, makes up most of the research projects carried out by companies in the green biotechnology sector. Green biotechnology currently accounts for 32.7% of all business activity in the BioRegion of Catalonia and most of these companies, 22%, focus on the field of health-related food. This sector is firmly committed to R&D investment: having devoted €337,190 per year in 2007 according to the 2009 Innova study, and a good part of the companies, 20%, carry out biotechnology activities.

Danone is one of the most active companies in applying biotechnology research to improving their products. We spoke with Agustí Montserrat, director of R&D at Danone Research Spain, about the challenges posed by research in this field.

How important is R&D at Danone?

It is fundamental. We began in the 1970s, when the food industry’s fundamental concern was production and quality. It wasn’t about innovation but about doing things right, food safety. It was a time when yogurt had a short shelf life, was taken from shop to shop, and spoiled if it wasn’t sold in four days. Afterwards, in the 1980s, industrial development began and R&D appeared, but mainly “D”. Growing interest in developing technology that would make yogurt that had previously died along the way last longer. At the end of the 80s there was also a more conceptual and philosophical effort, we began to explain that yogurts have living bacteria and understanding this was an important step forward. Even today, anything about bacteria sounds bad. It was a groundbreaking path and we achieved it through innovation. We explained it through products like Bio (now known as Activia).

And where is innovation headed in the 21st century?

We started off the century with innovation oriented towards developing functional products, food that in addition to providing vitamins, proteins, fats, sugars, etc., also contributes to health, helping people avoid developing certain diseases. This is a health innovation.

Is health your foundation for innovation?

Yes, but what we try to do with our innovation is to strike a balance between pleasure and health. Just because we look after our health doesn’t mean that we have to enjoy what we eat any less.

How have consumers accepted this innovation?

Consumers need time to accept this change. Innovation in food isn’t normally groundbreaking because people don’t accept radical changes. Our traditions regarding food are deeply ingrained and we don’t normally like new things the first time we try them.

Have you been faced with any innovative foods that haven’t been accepted by consumers?

Yes, for example a functional food called Essensis, which wasn’t successful. It was a product that was good for the skin and that had undergone two years of clinical studies, but consumer response wasn’t what we had hoped.

And what was your experience of this failure?

It doesn’t matter. When you innovate you know that some products will work and others won’t. We look for consumers’ opinions but at times these opinions have more to do with desires than what the product does. Marketing and opinion research don’t normally go hand in hand with reality and this is even truer in terms of food culture. We are tied to our habits and changing them is difficult.

Can Danone be defined as a food innovation company?

Yes, we invest a lot in innovation; 1.5% of our turnover goes to R&D. That’s €17 millions per year in Spain alone. And, what’s more, we assume more than 95% of the research costs ourselves; in fact, we receive very few subsidies in this area. We devote economic and human resources to R&D, with professional teams from a variety of disciplines that work in the different Danone Group centers. The Center for Research and Development in Barcelona, located in the old Danone factory, employs 55 workers in a variety of research projects, and throughout Spain there are more than 70 people working in innovation. Barcelona is the Danone Group’s second largest research center, after Paris, which has some 500 workers.

Is innovation at Danone groundbreaking?

Each year we generate roughly 30 innovations and, of these, one or two are groundbreaking. The rest are renovations of existing brands. In the food industry, you can’t introduce more than one or two groundbreaking innovations each year. It would be crazy for the company and for consumers.

What are you working on now?

On a lot of new products from the nutritional side of dairy products; with fruit and with functional products and probiotics.

How many research projects do you currently have?

Right now we have some 125 R&D projects underway at the Barcelona Research Center. In addition to these, we are also working on 12 more in collaboration with other research centers and organizations.

What collaborations are you involved in?

In terms of research projects, we are collaborating with two IRTA centers: the Ruminant Unit and the Monells New Technology Center (CENTA). We are also working with the Autonomous University of Bellaterra’s Food Technology Plant and we have close contact with organizations in Madrid and technology centers in the Basque Country, Valencia and other universities.

What are the keys to Danone’s success in R&D?

Innovation must be integrated into the company’s entire system. It’s not enough for one department to think about innovating. Innovation is totally integrated into all work areas at Danone. Another fundamental issue regarding innovation is daring, not letting fear of failure stop you. When you innovate, a lot of times you get it wrong because you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. The idea is good but it might not be the right time, possibly not even for the company.

The wrong time and place?

This happened to us with soy products. We’ve tried to put soy products on the market various times over the past 25 years. The first time we tried it everyone thought soy was animal feed, and in fact it was. We found that the average consumer didn’t accept it. Afterwards, we created a hybrid, a type of Activia with half milk, half soy, a product with a soy taste. Little by little tastes have changed. Asian food has found a place in European food habits and this has been an important part of this change. Three or four years ago, we launched fermented soy products and they were well accepted by consumers. Now we have soymilk on the market, which has also been a success. If we hadn’t insisted at other times and in other places, we never would have been successful.

Therefore, innovation requires patience.

Especially regarding food, because people aren’t ready for large sensory changes. We’ve known for many years that plant-based foods could be important, but we had to introduce it without breaking with the culture of the consumers, the country. And if we apply this to functional products, we must be even more patient because people need to accept that you have to eat something for a long time, as the desired results are only seen in the long term. And that is very different from eating for pleasure, which is what we normally do.

Patience and resources.

Yes, innovation requires faith, hope and resources. It’s not about charity.

Sign up for our newsletters

Stay up-to-date on the latest news, events and trends in the BioRegion.