Interview with Mark Crowell, CuliNEX Founder & CEO
Where do you see the food industry heading in 2024?
As far as consumer trends go, taste continues to be an absolute prerequisite in the industry. Beyond that, plant-based, marketing claims around health particularly claims like “allergy-free,” a focus on sustainability (both for companies and products), and mission-based branding are all trends that I see as being important this year. As for company growth, on the CPG side, there will be fewer start-ups in the current tight funding environment. The ones that do launch will be mostly well-run and have solid business plans and funding. We enjoyed 15 years of ultra-low interest rates until last year. Those days probably won’t come back in my lifetime. Large CPGs pulled back from their acquisition spree of smaller companies about 2 years ago. Smaller companies don’t have that exit ramp strategy anymore.
This is where CuliNEX comes in. We can support companies through reformulation and production efficiencies that will make a big difference to many of them. This helps start-ups manage their product lifecycles. A fresh set of experienced eyes looking at their formula or at the plant operations can have a big payback. Selling prices into distribution usually aren’t affected by behind-the-scenes tweaking. All those savings go to the bottom line. Also looking at an innovation pipeline to create excitement for future investors is important.
Will the emphasis on clean label continue to be a major push for new and established brands?
Yes. That is a mega-trend and is not going anywhere. If anything, it will only become more important. Also, the term clean label is a big tent and can morph as people come to care about different things, like social justice issues. From the standpoint of being able to understand what is on a food label, people continue to learn about the link between diet and their overall health. They will pay increasing attention to what they eat and how it makes them feel. Many people with specific health conditions like food allergies have had to figure things out on their own. Better testing for allergies and analysis of the microbiome are starting to change things. Our team is very connected with emerging trends in clean label, including the mass media focus on ultra-processed foods. We have participated in webinars and contributed to media on this topic.
Clean Label used to mean natural and organic. Now it not only means clean, natural, simple ingredients, but we are expanding our awareness to think about sustainability and regenerative ingredients that support the planet. Click the link to see more on natural food trends in our blog - CuliNEX | What's Naturally Trending at Expo West?
Specifically, what is new at CuliNEX for 2024?
We continue to grow. As we broaden the R&D team, we bring in people with experience in different product categories and specialized areas. We have also broadened our service offerings. We are always expanding our services and customizing our support for our clients. Last year we optimized our white space exploratory process. That has been a critical add for clients launching products in new categories needing more sophisticated market analysis and consumer research.
From whitespace to plant scale up – we have broad expertise and customize our services so we can stay a step ahead of our client's needs.
Click the link to see more about our services - CuliNEX | Services
Do you envision your business changing this year? How?
Change is the one constant! I anticipate good growth this year, but our real focus will be on finding new ways to delight clients at every touchpoint in their journey with us. Our business has always been reliant on referrals and word of mouth and I’m a big believer in delivering quality and value - doing exceptional work for clients and earning that next project. We are also listening very closely to them to understand where we can improve. Continuously improving our service is a core value and part of our mission.
Generally, what do you see as the biggest hurdle to speed in innovation today? What about product development hurdles specifically?
Smaller companies have hurdles related to getting started (not knowing what product to launch next), a lack of expertise and/or equipment to make prototypes and continue to have related hurdles throughout the process as they get to co-man searches. Larger companies have issues related to working within a current stage-gate process, prioritization, lack of resources, etc.
At CuliNEX, we can move faster than most anyone else in the product development eco-system because these types of hurdles are removed and because we have the experts across the innovation and product development cycle in-house. We are an outside service, and our objective is to meet our clients’ timeline without distraction from other client priorities. This is one of the main reasons many clients bring us in - to avoid the routine hurdles experienced in companies related to lack of labor, shifting priorities, or process limitations.
What is the “secret sauce” at CuliNEX?
It comes down to our dedication to clean label development and how we do that development work, through the practice of Culinology. We have been at this for 19 years now. Long before “clean label” development was even a term in popular use. We are the only large product development provider in the country practicing the discipline of Culinology, (the blending of food science and culinary arts) throughout our R&D organization. This focus on the consumers’ taste experience is paramount to repeat purchases and growing food businesses. Combined with our focus on clean label development, it allows us to really stand apart from other product development firms.
Any last thoughts about 2024 and beyond?
I’m very excited by the opportunity to have a larger impact on the industry as we grow. We want to have a positive influence on the way new products are developed, and what ingredients are used in their production. Making delicious and better products creates a better planet, healthier people, and happier communities. That is our mission.