Nate Smit, enterprise lead for breakthrough innovation at Hormel Foods, joined the company in 2001 as a chemistry lab technician, advanced to associate scientist in R&D in 2009 and to scientist in 2011. He helped develop one of the most successful bacon products in Hormel Foodservice history, Hormel® Old Smokehouse® Pecanwood Bacon, and in 2012, took a position in the grocery products division as an associate brand manager of innovation. While there, he aided in the development of several new product platforms including the launch of the IRI pacesetter award-winning product Skippy® P.B. bites. In his current role he has helped launch several new product lines for the Skippy® and Justin’s® brands.
Nate received a BS in food science and industry from Kansas State University, and he is also certified in design thinking from Stanford University. He holds two U.S. patents, has authored two books and was honored as a 2019 Alumni Fellow at Kansas State University.
Can you tell us about your role at Hormel Foods and how it supports the Originate Initiative?
I’m in a new role called the enterprise lead for breakthrough innovations, where I’m looking at things that are two to three to even five years out, both new technologies and new platforms for the company to prepare us for the future and for growth. I’ve got a unique visibility into projects across the company, and I bring that perspective to the Originate Initiative.
In your role you always have to be on the lookout for new ideas. What is it about innovation at Hormel Foods that appeals to you?
What excites me about innovation is the thrill of new ideas and bringing them to life and making consumers happy. I like seeing a smile on their face and watching the sales grow for the company, so it’s a win-win-win. What I like about the Originate Initiative is we’re getting to tell our story and we’re hearing the stories behind the products, which is pretty amazing.
We often talk about a culture of innovation at Hormel Foods. What can you tell us about it?
A culture of innovation is where you feel comfortable speaking up, sharing ideas. It’s never like one person has the idea and it takes off. It’s a collaboration, and it doesn’t matter where the idea comes from. And that’s really how things happen. It’s like, “Hey, I’ve been struggling with this business challenge,” or “Hey, I’ve had this product idea, but I don’t quite have it put together. What are your thoughts?” I love that. It’s really powerful creating a culture where people feel empowered to speak up and build ideas together. If it’s good, we can bring it to market, we can test it. So you want to create a culture where people feel included, they want to share ideas, and consumers will always tell you what the good ideas are. They’ll do that through their dollars. I love the process of discovery and testing and then ultimately delighting consumers with a new product.
How have things changed in the food industry, from your perspective?
I’m coming up on 25 years in the food industry, and I’ve never seen the pace of change be so quick. It’s driven by technology, and that makes it really fun to be in our industry right now. We’re very active in this space of startups and new technologies. We work with our applied research teams to work with these companies, to learn about their approaches.
What trends are you tracking from a product innovation perspective?
I’m tracking two trends: sustaining the social good, which is sustainability; and food 3.0, which is high technology and food specifically. These are anything from upcycling to cultivated meats. Upcycling is just employing the idea to reduce, reuse, recycle. So we’re looking at what we can do within our own operations and also utilizing other food byproducts to be more sustainable in our operations. We want to stay in tune with what’s happening in that world in the startup space.
You wanted to work for Hormel Foods long before you were hired. Are you happy that you’re here now?
I am. If you go back and look at our founder’s quotes, there’s a lot of comments around how we can go to work each day trying something new, trying to be better than the day before. I love trying new things, learning new things, getting fresh perspectives. I think George Hormel would be proud of where we’ve come and where we’re going, and I’m proud to be part of it.