Mark Piper: Leading a culture of innovation

We want to partner with customers to unlock the top 2% of what dairy can do. 


Mark Piper is the Director, Group Research & Development at Fonterra. He heads up one of the world’s largest dairy research institutes, the Fonterra Research and Development Centre (FRDC) in Palmerston North.

Founded in 1927 as the New Zealand Dairy Research Institute, the FRDC is one of the largest research facilities in the world dedicated to dairy. It is home to more than 280 researchers, engineers and scientists from 46 different countries, with more than 130 PhDs, 3,500 years of combined dairy experience and 350 patents.

Mark is at the forefront of innovation in all NZMP categories. If he isn’t overseas meeting customers or speaking at a conference, Mark might be in the office one day, on a farm visit or meeting partners the next. His busy schedule and on-site team management role keeps the 60 medium to large new product development (NPD) projects ticking along, with another 50 smaller projects ongoing.

Mark’s Fonterra career spans 25 years, with roles in New Zealand followed by Japan, America and now back to New Zealand with his family in January 2016.

With no two days the same, Mark categorises the role of the FRDC team as focussing on three areas of innovation: business support, NPD and new technologies.

There are many ways NZMP works with customers on NPD, but the three main ways are:

  1. Understanding a market need and then developing an ingredient and marketing it globally.
  2. Taking a customer’s need, developing an ingredient, sharing it with the customer and working with them to develop the final product for consumers.
  3. Directly partnering and co-developing ingredients for customers to use.

While Mark says there is no preference in how they work with customers, which are among the world’s largest food and beverage companies, direct partnership and co-development has the best chance of success.

The team’s innovation timeline is between three months to five years, based on a myriad of business decisions including the size of the task, how critically it’s needed, and resource availability.

Mark says his role offers many challenges, but one stands out.

The ultimate goal is to unlock the top 2% of what dairy can do, but it’s really hard,” says Mark.

To help achieve this, the team identifies knowledge gaps and creates targeted research programmes to explore these gaps and generate research-based evidence that can be applied to customers’ needs.

Mark’s identified three global trends that are gaining momentum:

“Firstly, cognition through life. From growing a developing infant to helping keep a teenager sharp at exam time right through to the aging population asking; how can I make sure I’m alert.

“Secondly, people are more concerned with lifelong mobility, including muscle, bone and joint health at all ages.

“Lastly, the drive for ingredients to be as close to natural as possible helps NZMP customers produce clean labels with fewer added ingredients,” he says.

Drivers for the trends come from consumers, through NZMP customers directly and even by observing social media.

“In 2017 we celebrated 90 years of dairy innovation in Palmerston North. Innovation has always been part of our DNA, today it’s the pace and scale of what we are doing in grass-fed dairy excellence that keeps me coming back for more.”