Cambridge: the view from Mars
In October 2013, Mars and the University of Cambridge announced a formal collaboration. Its dual aim: to help Mars tackle global sustainability challenges that both its business and society share through first-class academic research, and to involve the University and its students in the development of new commercial applications.
Since Frank C. Mars started making and selling butter cream candy from his kitchen in Tacoma just over a hundred years ago, Mars has grown into a $33 billion multinational business. Unusually, the company is still owned by the Mars family today and it is this private ownership that gives it the freedom to invest in a range of leading projects which other companies might not be able to. This has had important advantages for the company and – Mars intends – for the rest of us as well.
From the outset, the Mars business has been passionate about Research and Development (R&D). The business was built upon technological breakthroughs, from the launch of the revolutionary Milky Way in 1923 and the Mars Bar (invented in war-torn Slough), to the development of new types of rice for the US Army in the tropics, and the establishment of a research centre for pet nutrition in the UK in the 1960s.
Now a highly complex organisation, with a presence in more than 74 countries and across six business segments (petcare, chocolate, food, drink, the Wrigley brand and Mars Symbioscience which focuses on global health issues and life sciences), arguably R&D is more important to Mars than ever. At the same time, the company is famous for its strong corporate values. ‘The Five Principles of Mars’ – Quality, Responsibility, Mutuality, Efficiency and Freedom – are qualities which all team members live and breathe from the moment they step through the door.
David Crean, Staff Officer for R&D, explains how these twin ‘drivers’ of R&D and corporate responsibility continue to have a positive impact on the way Mars works: “Things are changing significantly in terms of the research. The first – and, really, only question – we perhaps used to ask ourselves was ‘how do we gain competitive advantage?’ These days, although we obviously want to remain competitive, it’s much more about who we can work with, and how we can share information to tackle some of the huge challenges facing the world today. As a business, for example, we use close to seven million tonnes of raw materials every year and we need to make sure we are doing that sustainably and responsibly. The sustainable supply of raw materials, food safety, food security – these are issues that affect all of us – and are issues that we recognise we must play a part in solving.”
A few years ago, Mars deliberately asked itself some searching questions about how it organises itself. One of the main conclusions it came to was that it should be working with the best available people – which is where the University of Cambridge came in. Over the years, Mars had worked with the University on a number of one-off projects. The relationship developed into something more sustained and purposeful when an alumnus of the IfM’s Manufacturing Engineering Tripos joined Dave Crean’s R&D team and talked persuasively about the work the IfM was doing, particularly in technology management. This led to a number of projects with the IfM using approaches developed by the Centre for Technology Management and delivered through IfM’s dissemination arm, IfM Education and Consultancy Services (IfM ECS).
These days ... it’s much more about who we can work with, and how we can share information to tackle some of the huge challenges facing the world today.
Dave Crean said: “We certainly got a lot out of these projects and I think the IfM did too. All good collaborations are based on personal relationships; ours has developed steadily over the years and has been supported by very high quality work. So in terms of strategic partners, Cambridge was right up there. We thought it was time to get more serious about this relationship.”
About two years ago, Mars brought its technology committee over to Cambridge and IfM ECS organised a University-wide briefing day, to show Mars executives some of the research activities it was engaged in, such as sustainability, wind turbines, energy and managing risk. Professor Peter Guthrie, head of the Engineering Department’s Centre for Sustainable Development, who chaired the event, said: “This was a very useful exercise. It clearly demonstrated that there is both an appetite for, and the capability to develop an in-depth and productive relationship between the two organisations to address the hugely diverse challenges that food production, processing, distribution and consumption present.”
This led to a discussion about setting up a more organised and strategic relationship which would continue to benefit both parties.
One of the things that prospective collaborators soon learn about the University of Cambridge is that it does not operate as a single entity but as a whole series of very loosely connected networks. Combine this with the fact that Mars is also a confection of different businesses in different countries and the potential for complexity is clear. Mars’s broadest aspiration, therefore, is to understand the University’s networks and, where appropriate, support them. While Mars is keen that individual parts of its business can access the University’s expertise, they are also careful to ensure that the relationship is not over-managed by the global R&D team. IfM ECS’s role, in addition to delivering particular projects, is to help Mars navigate its way around the University networks.
Although it is still early days, the collaboration is already beginning to bear fruit. Research programmes particularly in the areas of food security and food safety, are being actively progressed. New technologies to support the sustainability goals of the Mars business, as well as the nutritional profiles of its products, are also on the agenda.
In addition, Mars is keen to put Cambridge students right at the heart of some of its key design challenges, looking to them for their fresh perspective. For Mars, this is an opportunity to listen to completely new observations – unencumbered by experience – on some of the issues they face. For the students, it is a great opportunity to get a feel for some of the complex problems they might encounter in the workplace in future. Training and development for Mars employees is another important strand of the relationship and IfM ECS is currently developing leadership courses for Mars’s R&D and supply chain teams.
Dave Crean is optimistic about the potential benefits of the collaboration: “One of our principles is mutuality. Everything we do should benefit society as a whole. Working with the University of Cambridge is part of our commitment to addressing these challenges and to sharing our findings with both the research and industrial communities.” Professor Lynn Gladden, the University’s Pro-Vice- Chancellor for Research, is equally positive: “The University is looking forward to working closely with Mars to expand what was already a very successful long-term relationship into a range of new areas.”