NORTHFIELD, Ill. (TheStreet) -- Thanks to a society that subsists on the likes of Oreos and Oscar Mayer wieners, Kraft Foods (KFT) is the second-largest food-processing company in the world -- $50 billion in revenue, including 11 brands that bring in more than $1 billion each.
Among the company's 140,000 employees are 2,400 full-time scientists, engineers and chemists. But Kraft also makes a point of seeking ideas from outside the company -- university labs, small suppliers, startups and individual entrepreneurs.
For that last group, which is least likely to have an existing relationship with the company, Kraft hosts a product-submission portal called
"Our suppliers and universities already have a foot in the door," says Nanako Mura, associate director of open innovation and knowledge management in Kraft's research and development and quality organization. "Innovate With Kraft is a way for individuals to get their foot in the door, too."
Kraft sorts its needs into the fields of new technology, products, packaging and processes.
Current technology needs center around wellness. The company is searching for innovations in weight management, moisture barriers, ingredients that reduce the effects of aging and salt substitutes. For example, Kraft licensed a patent from outside the company to secure the rights to develop and market a squeezable version of Miracle Whip.
The company's product needs fall into the categories of "health and wellness" -- anything sporting fiber or calcium; "quick meals" a la Oscar Mayer Lunchables; "premium," such as DiGiorno pizza; and "snacks," especially ones that arrive in easy-to-eat shapes, such as the company's individually-wrapped Oreo Wafer Sticks.
Kraft's Bagelfuls, loaf-shaped bagels that come pre-stuffed with cream cheese, was borne of a licensing agreement with a small company called
Filled Bagel Industries
, which had a product called Bagel-ers. And the recently introduced Kool-Aid Fun Fizz, a "drink drop" that works sort of like Alka Seltzer to turn water into Kool-Aid, was also developed with an external supplier.
Kraft's packaging needs include systems that can reduce oven-baking time for cookie dough and the like, containers that encourage portion control, recyclable air-tight films, and novel ways to open and close a disposable container. The company's "Snack 'n' Seal" packaging for Oreos and Chips Ahoy was developed by an outside supplier.
Process innovation involves finding new ways to develop and secure existing products. Kraft is looking for high-speed leak detection for product packaging, ways to detect non-ferrous materials without squishing a product, and anything involving waste and water management.
The innovation department's Mura stresses that the company isn't actively seeking tweaked versions of existing products. "We're not looking for the next ideas on purple Oreos," she says.
The company, which receives dozens of product ideas a week, accepts submissions only on a non-confidential basis. Applicants are required to sign an agreement showing they understand their ideas are protected only to the extent that they're patented or copyrighted.
In its terms of submission, Kraft says it may, at its sole discretion, grant an award up to $5,000 to an applicant who submits an idea that's unprotected by a patent or copyright. Patented ideas, on the other hand, can lead to lucrative licensing agreements. Beyond protecting the entrepreneur, a patent also helps prove that an idea is novel.
Entrepreneurs can boost the case for their idea by including evidence of clinical or market trials for the product. Testing a new potato chip on your own family doesn't count, Mura says.
-- Reported by Carmen Nobel in Boston.