Consumer products R&D might surprise you!
Career Story by Kurt Schilling, PhD, SVP Basic Science Research and Advanced Technologies at The Estée Lauder Companies Inc.
I don’t think too many people really know much about R&D careers in the consumer products industry. Although I was partially aware of some of the work happening behind oral care brands during my PhD program at URSMD, I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I joined Unilever back in 1989. After spending the last 28 years or so at Unilever, Johnson and Johnson and Estee Lauder, I can say without reservation that my journey has proven to be as exciting and rewarding as any R&D career out there. Why do I say that?
Innovative products that people love
First and foremost, the overall output of the industry’s R&D efforts are products that people need every day and love. That makes it all pretty gratifying. However, that shouldn’t obscure the fact that creating these personal care, nutrition, and other consumer products requires an amazing amount of basic and applied science. For instance, development of your average skin care product involves new bio-actives and tissue targets, exquisitely stabilized multi-phasic formulations, packaging optimized for function and design, manufacturing innovation to deliver efficacy, sensory properties and sustainability , and scientific support and claims that meet the requirements of a number of government agencies.
Depth of science and capabilities
That brings me to the second big surprise inside consumer product companies; they are full of great scientists and engineers. When I joined Unilever, they had a global research force (that’s basic R , not D) of nearly 5000 individuals, with somewhere around 1000 PhDs! Johnson and Johnson also has an army of scientists, engineers and other technical and health care professionals. And Estee Lauder, where I am today – although smaller than the other two – has an amazing number of highly trained scientific leaders.
Another rewarding aspect of consumer products R&D is the great external partnerships that are integral to our success. Our R&D has always depended on academic collaborations. However, more recently the entire industry has become entangled in a network of “open innovation” where schools, incubators, start-ups, consumer groups, professional organizations, investors, consultants and many other classes of experts work together to drive multi-functional, multi-modal innovation.
Most big consumer products companies are global and as a result most researchers in the industry participate in/lead multi-national teams. These organizations are among the most inclusive out there, with diversity measurable in every dimension from gender to geography to cultural heritage to intellectual approach. I have been responsible for multi-national projects and teams in every division of every company I have worked for. Global travel and short and long term overseas assignments are quite common and I have been fortunate to experience all of it.
Finally, careers in consumer products R&D offer life-changing opportunities in personal development. All world-class companies in my industry offer a broad range of development opportunities from traditional education and degrees to unique business-specific training. In addition these organizations teach focus and accountability as well fine tune one’s ability to set goals and deliver on commitments. Most offer multiple career paths to the trained scientist, from roles and training that keep you at the forefront of your technical area, to management tracks that challenge your ability to lead people and utilize R&D company resources effectively. Others make their way to other functions like legal/regulatory, marketing and business development.
These and other attractive features of an R&D career in consumer products continue to surprise me even after 28 years in the business. Join me Friday November 3 (9:00 – 10:00) in The Center for Experiential Learning in room 2-7536 in the School of Medicine and Dentistry.