Head of Innovation Acceleration, Nestlé R&D Center for Food

Oliver Nussli

Oliver Nussli

Alumnus since 2006

Working at the forefront of plant-based food

“We’re testing a vegan version of foie gras right now in Switzerland and Spain,” says Oliver Nussli, the head of innovation acceleration at the Nestlé R&D Center for Food.

Even if you haven’t tried plant-based alternatives to meat, fish, and other animal proteins yet, you’ve probably seen those new food products at your local grocery store. And as the demand for meat alternatives rises, especially among the younger generation, the market is becoming increasingly competitive — and exciting, says Oliver Nussli. Now working at the forefront of this fast-growing industry, he recently chatted with us from his home-based office to share his path from consulting to food innovation and his perspective on what’s coming next.

Don’t worry, he’s not suggesting that everyone stops eating steak.

“But,” he says, “if you like chicken nuggets, and you have concerns about sustainability or animal welfare, and there is a meat alternative that tastes very close, you might want to think about making a switch from time to time. The food is easy to prepare, and the taste and texture are very convincing.”

You have a motto on your individual LinkedIn page that says, “Make vegan tasty.” What do you mean by that?
I believe that taste, texture, and visual aspects are critical when it comes to plant-based alternatives. And to be honest, at first, I was rather skeptical of plant-based products myself. But then my wife and I took two vegan cooking courses. We made a vegan Bolognese [sauce] and we found it actually delicious. That experience opened my eyes to what’s possible.

How did you initially get interested in the business of food?
Growing up in Switzerland, I had a fairly traditional but very positive experience. I played a lot of soccer, and I liked science in school. So, when the time came to decide what to study at university, I chose food science because it provided a mix of biology, chemistry, and physics. Then, a few years later, I got my MBA in the Netherlands, with a semester in the United States. I also spent some time traveling, and I’ve always enjoyed experiencing different cultures and foods around the world.

What drew you to Strategy&?
I wanted to have variety in my daily work — and that’s what I got. I definitely got to apply my science background when I worked on projects related to food, pharma, and biotech, but I also worked on many projects in banking and IT. Across industries, what stands out from those years the most is how I learned to structure problems and communicate clearly. I also learned how to pitch work successfully and operate in a global network. My time in consulting was an excellent training for what I do now. It was a very fast learning curve, and tough, but it allowed me to learn a great deal. The hardest part was just the amount of travel required, so after we had our first child, I decided to move on.

What did you do next?
I worked in the biotech industry, mostly doing a mix of marketing and business development related to enzymes, which are very important in food. For example, we marketed a new enzyme that keeps bread fresh for three or four days which helps supermarkets to lower their carbon footprint because the bakeries don’t need to go restock the shelves in the supermarkets that often. From there, I moved on to Nestlé, where I’m now leading our R&D efforts to accelerate translating scientific findings into tasty products in our food category.

Why is the demand for plant-based foods rising now?
I think there are three major reasons: Consumers’ focus has been shifting to personal health, environmental and sustainability factors (including population growth), and animal welfare. Of course, a number of solutions will be required to address these challenges, but I believe plant-based food is an important one of them.

Looking ahead, how do you see this industry growing?
I believe we’re all still at the beginning. [My wife and I] have two teenage daughters. The first one went vegetarian three years ago; the second one followed a year later. And I think, in general, there's an increasing affinity among younger people to those perspectives. So in a few years, when this next generation has a higher income at their disposal, their choices will really have an impact on the market.

Plant-based alternatives become an industry priority — and as modern food science and technology continue to evolve, we can do even more in this area. All of these factors combined keep us busy and excited about what’s ahead.

At this relatively early stage in plant-based alternative food, how do you develop new products?
Well, we don’t go and pitch them with a PowerPoint presentation. We pitch with a prototype. We often present products with chefs cooking in our kitchens, so that we can really demonstrate taste, texture, color, and nutrition. We test, we create minimum viable products, we test again. I think that having these opportunities to evolve the products can be very motivating, and fulfilling, to the team.

What’s the best advice you can offer to your fellow alumni?
Food is like football or baseball. Everyone loves to talk about it. But to really be successful in the industry, you have to understand the science and the technology behind it. That’s critical.

Reflecting on your career so far, what makes you proudest?
Seeing products on the shelves that you helped develop is a cool feeling, and it’s nice when they’re successful. But more generally speaking, a career isn’t always an easy flight. So I’m happy that what I’m doing now really gives me the opportunity to add value. Coming from a scientific background, with experience in tech and business development, that helps me explain what we’re doing, so that consumers can understand our work is much more than a marketing story.

As part of a series of interviews with alumni, this one was conducted and edited by Ina Fischer, Strategy& and Jen Swetzoff, founder of CLOSEUP, a creative studio in Brooklyn, New York. Jen was formerly the deputy managing editor at strategy+business magazine.

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