On a Mission

from Mars

5 Questions with Harold Schmitz

by Tim Akin

A 20-year veteran at Mars, Harold Schmitz has been chief science officer since 2005. He leads the strategic development, alignment and quality control of the food company’s multidisciplinary internal and scientific research programs. Since 1995, Schmitz has participated in collaborations with several departments across campus, most extensively with the UC Davis Department of Nutrition. He was recently named a senior scholar in management at the Graduate School of Management, and has taught an MBA course on business innovation in food/agriculture. Read more about Harold Schmitz.

For more than four decades, UC Davis and Mars, Incorporated have partnered on innovative research covering agricultural, biological, food, veterinary and nutrition science.

In September, UC Davis and Mars took that partnership to the next level by announcing an agreement to establish a new institute designed to deliver big-impact, Silicon Valley-type breakthroughs in food, agriculture and health. Mars has pledged $40 million toward the project over the next decade, matched by $20 million by UC Davis, to facilitate the design and development of the Innovation Institute for Food and Health, which will become the innovation arm of the UC Davis World Food Center.

Based in McLean, Virginia, Mars is one of the world’s leading food manufacturers with net sales of more than $33 billion (more than McDonald’s, Kraft Foods or Conagra). It has six business segments including Petcare, Chocolate, Wrigley, Food, Drinks, Symbioscience, and more than 75,000 Associates worldwide.

A 20-year veteran at Mars, Harold Schmitz has been chief science officer since 2005. He leads the strategic development, alignment and quality control of the food company’s multidisciplinary internal and scientific research programs. Since 1995, Schmitz has participated in collaborations with several departments across campus, most extensively with the UC Davis Department of Nutrition.

“The Business of Chocolate”

Harold Schmitz speaks on “The Business of Chocolate” as Dean’s Distinguished Speaker

View the video >>

Before joining Mars, Harold was an USDA National Needs Research Fellow at North Carolina State University’s Department of Food Science. He received his Master of Science degree in Food Science from the University of Illinois and his Ph.D. in Food Science, with a minor in organic chemistry, from North Carolina State University. Schmitz has a high interest in enhancing the contributions that science can make to society, and is active in the Executive Committee of the Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable at The National Academies.


Tackling Food Safety:  On a visit to Mars Petcare’s dry pet food production facility near Reno, Nev. in August, Mars Chief Science Officer Harold Schmitz (left) hosted MBA students Chris Darbyshire, Sasikanth Vadlamudi, Caleb Cavazos and Scott Harris to collect data for a summer-long project on food safety for Mars, Inc. The Mars Fellows team, which worked under the guidance of Schmitz and Dr. Bart Weimer (right), director of research at BGI@UC Davis, presented their recommendations to Mars executives in October. Read more about the MBA project.

“Working with the other fellows on this project has boosted my confidence to apply classroom lessons from our first year at the GSM to a real-world opportunity for an established company. Harold Schmitz and Dr. Bart Weimer have been awesome mentors – they have challenged us to come up with solid deliverables and given us valuable guidance for business plan development.”

— Second-year MBA student and Mars Fellow Chris Darbyshire (MBA, Class of 2015)

In August 2013, Schmitz joined the Graduate School of Management community to focus on business innovation in food/agriculture as a senior scholar in management, which recognizes both his success in his career and his scholarly work, having published more than 50 peer-reviewed academic publications. Last spring he taught an MBA course on “Scientific Discovery and Innovation at Scale in the Food and Agriculture Sector.” And he spoke about the “Business of Chocolate” as a Dean’s Distinguished Speaker in October 2013.

This summer, he managed a Mars-funded project by five UC Davis MBAs to explore risk management in supply-chain food safety. The students presented their recommendations to Mars executives in September.

Most recently, Schmitz was named the Graduate School of Management’s 2015 Arthur and Carlyse Ciocca Visiting Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. This spring he will teach an MBA course on “Leadership, Innovation and Entrepreneurship.”

We recently caught up with Harold Schmitz to ask him five key questions about Mars’ relationship with UC Davis and the value that the Graduate School of Management brings to the company.

I:    Tell us about your experience teaching the UC Davis MBA course. What did students learn and what did you come away with as a business leader?

S:   The theme of the course was the role of science and innovation in developing businesses within the agriculture, food and health space. Frankly, great advances are needed in this area because of the state of agriculture and its impact on the environment, ecology, and human societies—we have already made significant improvements but it needs to be much better.

I may be biased as a chief science officer, but I would argue that science and technology play a critical role in helping that transformation into the business innovation cycle. I’ve been at Mars for 20 years now and my time there has been a great learning experience. One of the things it has taught me is this: no matter how good the business innovation processes, and no matter how good the scientific research processes, if you can’t link them and bridge them then the optimum translation doesn’t occur. I don’t claim to have a solution, but I do have some observations based on my experience and time at Mars.

Schmitz on MBA student fellows summer project

“The quality and food safety of our products is an issue of central importance to Mars, Incorporated – we are continuously investing in R&D programs to improve performance in this area. Our current research collaboration with Dr. Bart Weimer and the School of Veterinary Medicine is a great example of this. Our partnership with the Graduate School of Management intern program will help to take this to a new level. By better understanding how to translate results from ground-breaking research collaborations into targeted innovation projects, we can improve business performance as well as the lives of our human and companion animal consumers.”

Here at UC Davis, given the strong connection with the finance and business innovation hubs in the Bay Area, we have a better chance than any other area to link fantastic breakthrough research in food, agriculture and health with these business innovation and financial resources. We have the opportunity to do amazing things. That’s why it was so compelling to teach a course here at UC Davis—the best food and agriculture university in the world. That’s what I talked about with the students. They need to consciously think about it to make this happen through discussion and collaboration.

The key to the innovation process is having talented input from many different perspectives. Also, sometimes the most creative period of people’s lives is when they are at a university, and this is why we’re doing this. Being able to talk to MBA students at this level is informative for me and for Mars and ideas generated here can be translated into business innovations that may, one day, impact the world. The best place to do this for Mars, is UC Davis—the best agriculture school in the world.

In fact, one of the immediate outcomes of the course was that we sponsored a team of four MBA students to explore and make recommendations on supply-chain food-safety risk management, which is a very important regulatory process within Mars and the entire food industry. They did an incredible job.

I:    Mars has partnered with UC Davis on a range of research projects since the 1970s. What do you see as the major advantages of developing this much bolder, deeper relationship by establishing the Innovation Institute for Food and Health? Why now, why UC Davis?

S:   The Mars family’s strategic plan is to be a great and successful food business globally—in terms of profitability and importantly also sustainability, both financial sustainability and social sustainability in terms of how we interact with communities. If you look back in the history of Mars, the company has always engaged with communities in an interesting and family-oriented way and collaborated with external partners. The conclusion we’ve come to is that it’s going to take breakthroughs to address the long-term sustainability challenges in the world we live in and the footprint left by food and agriculture. To achieve these breakthroughs, we’ll have to look at innovations in both science and business and this probably won’t happen if we are inwardly focused. We’re going to have to work with the best people around the world.

UC Davis is the best portal for this that we could think of—it’s an institution that, in its own right, focuses on sustainability, community engagement, external collaboration and innovations in science and business.

What I’ve learned personally over the past 18 years of interacting with UC Davis, is that the university has an exceptional global network—it has sister institutions and alumni in influential places all around the world. By being here, we have an opportunity to help catalyze scientific and technological breakthroughs on a global scale. These internal/external, public/private innovations will hopefully end up as large-scale, commercialized applications.

The relationship with UC Davis has taken time and the interaction of generations of scientists to establish. No-one should think the Mars-UC Davis relationship has just begun—it’s been built on the back of a lot of hard work. People have been flying back and forth on various projects for four decades now. That’s pretty wild.

On $40 million gift for UC Davis Innovation Institute for Food and Health

“The global food and agriculture system has a profound impact on several key sustainability areas, from climate change to food security. To make true progress on these issues, we will have to partner across sectors to drive and scale transformational innovation — the Innovation Institute for Food and Health will facilitate this approach.”

I:    Share more about the cacao genome project and how that has helped Mars and the chocolate and related industries and economies worldwide.

S:   So, “cacao” is the tree and “cocoa” is the product that comes from it. It’s cocoa that’s the main ingredient in chocolate. Mars’ Howard Shapiro is a senior fellow here at UC Davis and, in 2007, we had already been talking for a year about the issue of unsustainability of one of our most critical raw materials, cocoa.

We’d been investing in the sustainability of cacao from the agricultural research perspective since the early 1950s and then began investing more and more into the social aspects of agricultural sustainability. We realized, at some point, that we weren’t having that “move the needle” change that needed to happen. We’re talking about five decades now of effort and a lot of research. So we, some of the most senior people in the company and some of the Mars family, thought, “What do we need to do?” Howard came up with the idea that we should sequence the cacao genome, because, then, the best agricultural scientists in the world would come work on the crop. When that happens, he said, technology would start to emerge that has economic interests and businesses start to spin off of it and then you have an agricultural industry.

cacao plant

And so we sequenced the cacao genome. But Mars couldn’t do that internally—we had to do that externally. And so we assembled a team of the world’s best researchers in the world’s best laboratories to be objective critical advisors to the program.

Then here’s what we did. We put it out into the public domain. As you’re aware, the public domain aspect was a big deal. I think that was either the first or one of the first major commodity crops that had its genome put into the public domain. The reason we did it was this: we wanted to encourage the world’s best researchers to innovate at a global scale and then translate the innovation into businesses. You’ve got to have the right entrepreneurial spirit in place and once you do, you have small businesses springing up using innovations derived from the genome.

After we’d done cacao, Howard went on to say, “Well, if sequencing one genome is good, let’s do 24.” I don’t know why he picked 24. “Let’s have them called the orphan food crops of Africa,” he said. We wanted to leave these local food crops with the Africans and inspire them so that they could use these crops as a toolbox. That program connected with the Beijing Genomics Institute, BGI, which has partnered with UC Davis.

So with BGI, UC Davis and others, we’re now going to sequence the genomes of 100 African food crops. We’ll use the same model as with cacao and put the genomes into the public domain. On this project, Mars and UC Davis are collaborating specifically to drive the construction and staffing of a plant breeding academy in Africa that can take the genome and use it to bring new varieties into the field, stimulate the formation of small businesses, the creation of a new generation of entrepreneurs, and more. Hopefully that’s what’ll happen, that’s the dream.

“Scientific discovery and fundamental understanding in food, agriculture and health sectors offer critical business opportunities for entrepreneurship and innovation at scale.”

I:   These crops in Africa, are they types of raw materials for Mars?

S:   That’s a really insightful question. The answer now is: “no.” However, once this project is done, the answer could be different.

In the food industry, it’s increasingly difficult to pursue fundamental research or advanced research that doesn’t have obvious applications. This is because that type of research is a lot more difficult to monetize. How do you apply metrics that matter to fundamental research findings, especially given the way business expectations are today? For instance, it took a lot of minds to put the cacao genome into the public domain. Yet many people were asking us, “what are you doing giving it away?” It was not without controversy (even within Mars), but at the end of the day Mars is a chocolate company and so there are, of course, going to be benefits for us by encouraging cocoa research.


With the African food crops, the economic connection is more difficult to see. So to return to your question about whether we use these raw materials: we’re actually having a discussion now that we otherwise never would have had—on whether we can use these crops. This is doubly interesting as Africa is a growing economy. It’s actually a vibrant place, and this project is stimulating us to have talks about the African markets and how to participate in them that we didn’t have before.

This is what’s important about the Mars-UC Davis partnership—it fosters conversations about food and agriculture, sustainability and health that otherwise wouldn’t happen. Hopefully, these conversations can lead to something important.

“Our strategic intent is that we want to be a great and successful food business globally in terms of finance, profitable, so sustainable in a financial way, and sustainable in a social way in terms of how we interact with communities.”

I:    In what ways might Mars further tap the business, management, commercialization expertise at the Graduate School of Management?

S:   To start with the obvious, the curriculum that is taught here provides great insights into what it takes to run a business. Another key element is talent. We’ve enjoyed an excellent relationship with Davis from an agriculture and nutrition perspective that has enabled us to interact with the very top talent in these fields. So what we hope for is an extension of this relationship with the GSM.

Moreover, at Mars, we’re looking to go from using good innovation processes to a great innovation processes. To help with that, we need to continue the relationship with UC Davis that we established in the 1970s, interacting and having more intimate, candid and objective discussions and co-creating at a strategic level.

Also, we hope to learn from the Graduate School of Management’s Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which is doing amazing work in academies that bring researchers from all over the world together to study how to commercialize their research. We’re also looking to take lessons from the School’s Integrated Management Project course by partnering on a project with a team of MBA students. So, in summary, this is the latest chapter in what has been an evolving and positive relationship between Mars and UC Davis.

About the Author:

Tim Akin is executive director of marketing and communications at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management.

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