Early on a Monday morning, Erin Hiatt is baking some sweet treats. She fills up her measuring cup with water, adds it to the mixing bowl and turns on the KitchenAid.
Hiatt is a food scientist at Glanbia Nutritionals in Twin Falls. She's preparing the ingredients to make protein bars.
Glanbia is primarily a dairy ingredient company. It has four milk processing plants in the Magic Valley. And it sells raw materials like milk powder and whey protein, flavors, grains, and vitamin mixes. Glanbia also helps other companies make their own products using these ingredients.
“We’ve made a lot of bars," Hiatt says, "so we know what's out there on the market and everything, so we just help them make the type of bar they want.”
That’s the primary focus of one of Glanbia’s two Research and Development centers in Twin Falls. Where Hiatt works, companies bring in an idea — maybe they want to develop a new granola bar or protein mix. Then, the food scientists at Glanbia develop prototypes, gather feedback and at the end, the client walks away with a new product.
Loren Ward is Senior Vice President of Research and Development. He oversees Glanbia’s nine R&D facilities across the globe, and he's based in Twin Falls. He says back in the 1990s, this product development process used to take around six months. Now, with more scientists on board, it takes two to three days.
“When a customer wants to develop something, they’ll give us a set of parameters," Ward explains. "They'll tell us the nutritional targets they want, what they would like on the ingredient label, the type of prototype they want to make, whether it’s a ready-to-mix beverage, nutritional bar, a different type of cheese, the flavor and all the different aspects of this particular product."
And location is key. This R&D facility is within a 10-minute drive of Glanbia’s dairy plants.
“That's one of the reasons we really like being in the Magic Valley," Ward says. "It links us to the plant, it helps us in developing those ingredients that are going to make a finished product that hits the nutritional and functional characteristics the consumer is looking for.”
That’s also, in part, why Chobani recently moved its R&D team to Twin Falls from New York — to be right next to its yogurt plant.
Nate Murray, who leads economic development for the city of Twin Falls, says investment in food research here is on the rise. For over 100 years, the Magic Valley has been a hub for raw agricultural goods — from potatoes to corn to dairy. And over the past decade, food processing has grown in the region.
Food and agricultural research has been going on in the Magic Valley since farmers started planting crops — from figuring out the best placement for seeds to developing new planting technologies. But with more food processing plants, companies have been thinking about what other aspects of their business they can bring to the area.
So now, companies like Chobani are not just coming to the Magic Valley to process food, they’re also thinking about the future here, too.
On the day of its opening, Senior Innovation Scientist Amanda Tuck leads a tour of Chobani’s new Innovation and Community Center. The elevator opens onto an open floor plan. Glass doors and chalkboard walls line the space, and wooden yogurt tasting tables are the centerpieces.
“There’s meeting space and collaboration space, but it really is where we do the vast majority of new ideas," Tuck says. "So if there’s a new flavor you see or a new concept, it came out of here.”
CEO Hamdi Ulukaya says Chobani will be expanding beyond yogurt early next year. And to him, the Magic Valley is just the place to test out new ideas.
“We always believed Magic Valley can become the valley of food innovation, food entrepreneurship, and it’s already happening. We see all the companies are coming in,” he said at the building's opening.
To put it into perspective, though, labor economist Jan Roeser says R&D departments don’t expand the local workforce that much. Glanbia’s R&D team added about 35 members to Twin Falls over 20 years. And of Chobani’s 700-person workforce, about 45 work in R&D.
"To say it’s growing leaps and bounds, probably not," Roeser says. "But it's really great, sustainable growth and it brings individuals to our community that we might not otherwise be able to attract.”
Murray says bringing these research scientists to Twin Falls will likely inspire a multiplier effect of food innovation.
“When you have a concentration of that type of professional you get all these collisions that happen on a regular basis when people are sitting across from each other eating, and they just start talking about what they’re working on, and it just sort of formulates into a different idea," he says.
Murray says the city’s goal is to grow the entrepreneurial culture in Twin Falls.
“Shortly I think we’d love to have a physical location that the typical student or community person could come and get the support they need to grow out of their kitchen even, whether it's someone's jam or jelly or chocolate, and it’s like, 'That’s the next Clif Bar or Chobani.'”
There’s no official plan in the works for this type of makerspace right now, but Murray hopes this is the dawn of a new economic phase for the Magic Valley that builds even further upon its agricultural roots.
Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen
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