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

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