TARU PILVI: the spirit of Renewal

For few months now, Taru Pilvi has been Vice President for Blue Ocean projects at Valio (http://www.valio.fi), a leading Finnish dairy products company where the innovation and excellence spirit of Artturi Ilmari Virtanen, Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1929) seems to still haunt the lobbies considering the company’s highly scientific approach to product development. Taru’s position is combining know-how from R&D with business units, a very challenging position that suits this dedicated and creative PhD in nutrition specialized in obesity research. Taru is also in charge of sustaining Valio’s “ideas mill”.  We met at “Café Torparanta” in Munkkiniemi.

Taru Pilvi, director for Renewal a Valio

Taru Pilvi, Vice President for Blue Ocean projects at Valio

– Winnovators is about “women in innovation”. What is your definition of “innovation”, Taru?

– I would say that the word “innovation” covers the all process from idea, or even the seed of it, to the successful release of the resulting product on the market. In other words, it is how to start from an idea that has potential and develop it into a successful business. It’s a challenging process and that’s what I find exciting.

– How do you nuture the bourgeoning of ideas at Valio? I know that one of your policies is to encourage your people to go for PhD’s, which is a very specific way of exploring an idea and reaching excellence through research. 

– We encourage a spirit of permanent creativity which is a matter of having very talented people in the first instance. People who want to go for a PhD are aiming at something unique in their own area of expertise. What we widely promote is the interaction between different types of expertise and a culture of sharing: we want our employees to be able to look at their work from a different angle and be empowered to seize the opportunity to bring innovations to live by creating a proper and safe environment.  Sharing is the most important part of the process.

– Is innovation mainly resulting from structured brainstorm at Valio?

– Actually, it also results from the accidental sharing of ideas. We have some very specialized people in-house and they tend to exclusively interact with their peers and colleagues. My role is to help them talk about their own research on a daily basis and create opportunities for such accidents that bring people from different horizons together. This can happen by simply changing the sitting in the office or the organization of coffee tables for example: new configurations call for new types of interactions and getting people together is the most important part in creating innovation.

– You hold a PhD yourself. How did you pick up your topic?

– When I was finalizing my masters in the field of nutrition (author’s note: on the absorption of flavonoids that are anti-oxidative compounds), I would never have thought that I would become a doctoral researcher: I thought of them as boring people! My ambition had always been to work for a company, namely Valio bringing joy, help and happiness to people through solid research… While I was doing my masters thesis in the form of nutrition research at Valio, I however experienced how interesting and personally motivating research could be. I also realized that people who were doing the most interesting work at Valio were PhD’s. Riitta Korpela, who was leading the nutrition research unit at that time, encouraged my scientific aspirations and when a PhD position opened at the Institute for Biomedicine of the University of Helsinki, I applied. This research group was studying hyper tension, cardiovascular diseases and also anti-oxidative compounds, a topic I had already worked on. For  half a year, I explored research methods without too much enthusiasm I admit and when the first papers linking calcium, dairy proteins and obesity came out, I felt this was my subject, one with real business potential.

– What were your discoveries linking dairy products to obesity and could you use your findings in your weight management research position at Valio?

– My intuition was that something in milk was preventing weight gain and facilitating weight loss and my goal was to find out what it is, bit by bit, from dairy proteins to whey proteins and to the smallest fractions that had such effect. When I had all the practical experiments done and my intuition confirmed, a permanent position at Valio opened and I had the opportunity to start leading the weight management research there. Obesity and weight management are complex topics that forced me to go beyond understanding their sole scientific aspects: I suddenly had to understand why are some purchasing these type of products that benefit themselves and why some other don’t.  Actually, understanding consumers’ motivation was critical in this position. After two, three years at Valio, an organizational change occurred and I started taking care of the consumer research unit. The fantastic aspect of being a Vice President for Blue Ocean projects nowadays, is that I have the possibility to take the products resulting from this research to the market, up to the moment they are in the shelves.

– Valio has been quite innovative at launching “probiotic” dairy products that create intestinal balance and propel an equally balanced attitude towards food in general. Is your focus shifting to wheight loss products from now on? 

My focus is on something that will be appealing to both those who try to maintain the weight they have and to those who want to go on a diet. Nowadays, people are very keen to have natural products that are beneficial to the general balance of the body and have an impact on weight meaning that “light” or “fat free” products are out of scope.

– Valio’s “Renewal” unit combines a strong “research component” to business. To me Valio seems to be at the top of research so are you essentially dealing with researchers?

In my current position, I am more on the business side – business represents 70% of what I do. The rest is trying to make a connection between the research and business people more effective. Having an history of being on the research side and being now in business, I can bridge one world to the other. For example, I can see some ways to make the research language more business-oriented and ways to have business people to undertsand the value, practical value of research.

– What is a typical working day of yours?

– There are lots of meetings – with marketing people, ad agencies, business development – and now that I have this new position I have two offices, one on the business side and one on he R&D side and I spend my day running between these two houses which gives a clear picture of what I am trying to do in terms of cross-communication between research and business. I also take care of the “ideas creation” process. For example, we had a “cheese innovation” day: I was a facilitator for about 35 cheese thinkers who came up with ruffly 350 ideas that we covered, selected and prioritized according to their potential to get big. We had similar days for milk ideas, snack ideas, yoghurt ideas, etc.: there are many such groups!

Virtanen room at Valio headquarters

Virtanen room at Valio headquarters

– I might be mistaken, but I feel there is lot of pressure coming from history with a Nobel prize in the house?

– If any, the pressure is not on becoming the next Nobel but rather on the excellence level which is higher than in any another dairy company. We definitely want the best researchers in the field, the best professors in the world, etc. because of the tradition and history embodied in this unaltered “Virtanen” room that we see in our buildings.

– Valio seems to be an idea mill… what about including consumers in this process?

– We will. Consumer research is one of the areas where we strive to reach an equal excellence level as we have in research in biochemistry, nutrition and chemistry. Our market is competitive and capturing how people think about food is a highly complex process. Besides milk as a such is still a surprising element. Did you know that there is a special committee in the US that gets together every 10 years and decides about the milk compound names discovered over the past decade? Milk is thus not so basic and it makes it fascinating and there there is a lot a lot of novelty to be expected from milk!

– From a consumer point of view, the next big is how the company shares this accumulated internal knowledge to leverage the product consumer profile.

I agree on this. As a consumer how would you like to get the information?

– Let’s take a concrete example: personally, I would love to know more about lactose free products when I purchase them, because in the back of my mind, there is always the fear that by using them regularly, even though they are recommended in some cases, we are just preparing for a life dependent on lactose free products – which you might not find in all the parts of the world…  I take it you have investigated about the long terms effects of using such products… You could easily connect your product to my mobile when I am purchasing and reassure me. I will be even more loyal to your brand if you did.  

– We know our lactose free products well and have carried lots of research… there is no reason to fear anything and especially not what you expressed! We are trying many new channels to help consumers find what they need. It has been very demanding. One example we can talk about is our web pages. We recently renewed our pages and we put recipes and pushed people to share theirs but we noticed that people were landing on our website by googling a recipe thus not directly for our products or for us as company.

– Are there many women working at Valio and what’s their specific contribution to Valio’s business – if any?

– There is a new type of leadership culture and in this new generation of leaders, women have some strong assets: they have more often people-oriented skills, and show empathy more easily. This is why I think the amount of women in excecutive positions will increase. At times however,  they are not willing to go and reach for these highest positions. Good leadership at all levels is however a prerequisite for success and “human-oriented leadership” is a set of skills we often find in women.

– How do you find your balance between professional and personal life?

– I get a lot of enjoyment from my work and I feel lucky to have landed such position where I do the things that I find important, valuable and exciting. That gives me energy and inspiration. I love to study at work but also in my free time, it keeps me going. I don’t want to separate life and work. I think we all need to make the decisions that allow us to enjoy our work…

I would like to encourage people to follow their hearts. Forget about planning your career, what is important is doing the things you enjoy, they help you reach happiness. Sometimes you get lost and it seems difficult to find what your inner drive is. Once it is found,  give it all !!! And don’t give up until you have found what you love to do because that’s the only way to succeed. And also: please take care of having the right people aournd you (inspiring energizing supportive people). You need at least one person who can be there for you – in professional terms. If you end up in a position where people just take your energy, you better leave. I have been very lucky to have lovely passionate supportive poeple around me here at Valio: Riitta Korpela during the time of my PhD and Tiina Mattila-Sandholm who has created all the possibilities for these exciting and inspiring things that we have at Valio’s Renewal. I learnt so much from them because they believed in me. You need at least one supportive co-worker around you and being able to work with such a talented leader has had a tremendous effect in my life.

– You just mentioned that you were spending your private time reading… what are you enthusiastic about for the moment?

– I currently read literature on how to energize people, how to keep people’s energy and creativity. There is Lynda Gratton’s “Glow. How you can radiate energy, innovation and success”, Martin Seligman’s “Flourish. A visionary understanding about well-being and happiness” – as at Valio we train people in positive psychology – and Seth Godin’s “Linchpin. Are you indispensable?” – that is about what type of people are needed in the future of work. Getting people’s energy on the right track will help them take care of the rest provided you have the talent that goes with it. You need both. I challenge people to be alert not to remain the half of they could be. It’s a personal choice to stay or go for new challenges that help them glow.


The interview was edited for clarity and brevity. Text: Ruxandra Balboa-Pöysti

Marie Curie: THE symbol of innovation

Marie Curie in her lab

Marie Curie in her lab

Marie Curie has always been considered an innovative woman. How else? She got two Nobel Prizes (in 1903 and 1911) in two different disciplines – she even was the first women to ever get one… that we all know. We either perceive her as a 24/7 lab rat, relentlessly working in miserable conditions to isolate new radioactive elements (polonium first and later radium) or, on the opposite side of the spectrum, as a passionate woman, marrying for love and then facing a scandal because of a highly mediatized affair with a married peer scientist. Recently however, more than a century after her breakthrough discoveries, Marie Curie got labelled THE most inspirational innovator in science*. Could this mean that no woman has contributed any major discovery over the last decades or is this rewarding her uniqueness?

To me, Marie Sklodowska-Curie has always been, above all, the incarnation of a modern woman: genuine, passionate, dedicated both to her career and her life as a woman, brilliant on all counts without ostentation and for these reasons she will probably remain a model for women for many more centuries.

1) a rebel at heart, using the sharing of knowledge as a weapon

At the moment revolutionary winds blow in the Middle-East and we are able to follow these events on our mobile devices by

Rebel spirit

Rebel spirit imprint

the minute, we might have a better sense of what resisting to a ruler that is not accepted by its population might mean. Even before she moved from Poland to France – where she challenged the very structures of scientific establishment by her sole intelligence and determination, Marie Curie politically opposed the Russian ruler by participating, to the risk of her life, in the Polish “flying university” with her only weapon: knowledge. What she knew, she was sharing and she was SHARING TO EMPOWER others because that was the key to her culture’s survival.

2) open Curie 2.0

Creative Commons logo

Creative Commons logo

Contrary to most of the scientists of her time, when she discovered the radium, she did not patent her discovery in the hope for money to flow in – although she was far from rich at the time. No, Marie Curie made all her research available to the scientific community and encouraged others to further work on her findings – and the resulting progress was tremendous! Her attitude is remarkable even by today’s “open” standards! A century after her discovery, she makes and sustains the difference with her attitude and innovative thinking of SHARING FOR INNOVATING!

3) lifelong learning a key to creativity

Radium image

Radium image

When the first World War hits Europe, her projects at the Radium Institute (nowadays Curie

Observing and sharing

Observing and learning

Institute) are suspended for a while. Did this mean that she stopped being creative? Not exactly… She launched the “petites curies” mobile surgical units equipped with X-ray machines meant to support doctors’ efforts on the battle field. She even learnt how to drive in order to take an active part in the war effort herself… Marie Curie’s creativity resulted from action, something we could call CRE-ACTIVITY. It does not matter if a door closes: we have no other choice than to open a new one and the good news is: we already know how to open them, we just have to be ready to take into account what we discover!!!

4) a passionate professional and a woman of passion

Marie was both a dedicated mother of two girls she raised with her non-conformist and rigorous spirit and a woman of passion.

Pierre and Marie Curie

Pierre and Marie Curie (wedding)

She not only married Pierre Curie out of love (he dropped his own research to support Marie’s work) but once her beloved brutally passed away, she followed her heart again. This time however, the scientist of dreams was a married man. A real scandal at the time, a scandal relayed by the press that crushed her with violence – under the leadership of the very university that employed her!!! What her overexposure to radium had not yet achieved in 1911, the trash conveyed by the media managed perfectly. Who can claim to have survived a scandal of that amplitude – but Hilary Clinton?

5) Is Marie Curie a crushed cultural version of Maria Sklodowska-Curie?

Maria Sklodowska moved to France, married a Frenchman and became and is remembered as Marie Curie – anyways Sklodowska is impossible to pronounce some would say. Nowadays, we would talk about a successful integration in her case (she was also the first woman to ever teach in the French Sorbonne University). According to testimonies in various biographies*, she had a Slavic accent when using French, she was not dressing according to the Parisian fashion standards either… What was her recipe for a successful integration then – language and acculturation being considered as the two main steps into being assimilated? It is indeed an extrapolation, but to me, one of the keys to her success is that all throughout her life, she remained herself, naturally. She followed her heart with a determination that lives only there. It has little to do with willingness but with authenticity, not an inch of the current flamboyance we attach to this word nowadays.

I believe that, would she have lived today, she would have embraced the possibilities offered by social media to leverage innovation and support learning and education, she would have embraced, as an accomplished scientist and woman, the promise of richness borne by the diversity of women’s knowledge in an era of globalization.


And this is our main objective at Winnovators: share our knowledge so as to support each other’s projects, support so as to empower women all over the world, bring them to life so that they make a difference.

SO JOIN OUR COMMUNITY OF WOMEN INNOVATORS  AT http://winnovators.twid.com/

Right now there are people looking for sharing knowledge on how to develop an affordable model housing, people looking on how to collectively write a cooking book, etc.


Article by Ruxandra Balboa-Pöysti



*UNESCO-L’Oréal prize of the most innovative women

Long ago, I read a biography of Marie Curie by Françoise Giroud “une femme honorable” and Eve Curie’s book on her mother. They both impressed me.

We all know the Revolutionary Study by Chopin, often used to symbolize The Polish resistance to its invaders. Recent days have brought new sounds of revolution to our ears. Here are both…

Chopin Revolutionary study by Boris Berezovsky:

The Egyptian revolution hymn:

All Women in the world – Unite and get your creativity going! Let us make a difference!

All Women in the world – Unite and get your creativity going! Let us make a difference!

This network is dedicated to women who are (re)shaping the future, and who want to share amazing ideas from the fields they have pioneered or are pioneering.   Ideas can be derived from anything whether it is science e.g. on the usage of the earth energy to innovations such as flowers and buttons for Crocs shoes, initially invented by a creative female for her children.

A recent study from BI Norwegian School of Management shows that more women on management boards lead to changes in organization that promote innovation. ‘Women encourage more opinions and contribute to the whole board being better prepared and more involved’.

Magdalena Pawlowicz

Magdalena Pawlowicz

I’m looking forward to see in the future more inspiring, strong, creative, innovative women world-wide who are reshaping the world and making the difference while supporting each other. Next blog post, I will write about my innovative ideas and share them with you. But for now, I am asking: what can you learn from women who inspire you and creative female friends in your surrounding?

Magdalena Pawlowicz

Together, we’re strong; together we’re WIN-novators

Ruxandra Balboa-Pöysti

Recently my serial entrepreneur friend Magdalena Pawlowicz and I were discussing the obstacles we women were confronted with when sharing our business ideas with our communities or when bringing our “innovations” to the market. OK, it’s a big boys’ world out there – especially in the technology field, but how come men succeed so more brilliantly in this business game than we, little women, do? We figured out that when men want to make a difference, they support each other – even if they are not all from Mars, whereas we, so-called ladies, just prefer stabbing each other in the back before anything launches – even if we are all from Venus…!

If we believed women simply were women’s best enemies when it comes to business, we would probably not have started to think of a solution gathering most of them! It was quite obvious that curving this pattern passed by  all women sharing their knowledge and some mentoring the others so as to actively support their ideas and innovations. This mentoring process should know no borders but rather benefit from the differences inherent to our cultures, the differences related to our age and roles in our communities, in brief: all united by innovation and our willingness to support each other, THE recipe to become WIN-novators.

After we spent some time defining the objectives of such network (see in the “about” section of this blog) and its unique mentoring process, we realized we needed a technology partner. Both of us were familiar with TWID,  a Finnish social media software company which solutions are particularly adapted to associations. TWID immediately accepted to support our initiative and help us develop an interface that will enable the cross-border innovation mentoring project we thought through to support you, innovative women. It should be operational by the end of February/beginning of March.

In the meantime, your feedback on the following topics is very welcome:

1) what are your expectations in terms of support for helping you release your potential for innovation? Have a look at our “how does WIN-novators work” under the “about” section of this blog and let us know if this is something useful or what would be more useful (deadline: 21st February). Please note that this is only a proposal so far and it is not binding. PS: The conditions of accessing the WIN-novators network will be known by 28th February 2011 at once with the launch of the network supporting it. We however value your feedback and hope to implement those suggestions that will contribute to the success of this network.

2) tell us about who is embodying the innovative woman, who is a source of inspiration for you as a women in business as we are planning monthly portraits of WIN-novators. The first one will be on your table Friday, 24th February and yes it might come as a surprise but we are sure it will create some debate…

Ruxandra Balboa-Pöysti

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