Profile in Innovation: Dan Perlman '68
As far as innovative inventions go, you’ll be hard pressed to find such an interesting, diverse portfolio as Dan Perlman’s. With over a 100 US and international patents (published and pending), Dan’s work spans decades of research and development. Among his vast range of creations are laboratory and consumer products, which include the well-known brand Smart Balance and the Corazonas-branded snack products.
From Brandeis to MIT to Brandeis Again
As an accomplished scientist and inventor, Dan’s career began in molecular and cellular biology. After graduating with his Bachelor’s from Brandeis in 1968, his research took him to the University of Wisconsin and MIT before he arrived back at Brandeis University in 1978.
During this time, Dan’s research focus began to evolve towards areas of applied food science. With a mixture of NIH and private industry funding, his research interests within this space began to take hold. In particular, his focus on nutrition resulted in numerous discoveries and their incorporation into consumer food products. For example, research into healthier natural fats brought Dan to collaborate with Dr. KC Hayes, Professor Emeritus of Biology (Nutrition), leading to the creation of the Smart Balance blend products.
Following the success of his work in healthy fats, which led to patents and robust sales, Dan’s work expanded towards dietary fibers and essential vitamins e.g. Vitamin E, as well as plant sterols. With his findings , he aims to incorporate these healthier nutrients into more consumer food products, namely processed foods.
Sources of Inspiration
With such varied interests in researching different sources for better nutrition, it raises the question: Where does Dan get his sources of inspiration?
As it turns out, Dan is a foodie at heart. With a passion for cooking, he likes to spend time in the kitchen to cook and bake. Furthermore, as a consumer shopping in supermarkets, he has always had an eye out for products, looking to bring different products together or thinking about how they could be improved.
Combined with his scientific acumen, it is clear to see where Dan’s motivation and passion for his research comes from.
Challenges & Opportunities – The Food Industry
Developing products and innovating in the field of human nutrition is far from a simple process, something which Dan is most familiar with as a research scientist and inventor. The challenges associated with developing products can be numerous and varied, particularly when it comes to a scientist’s funding. In fact, this circumstantial factor proved to play an important part in Dan’s foray into applied research. Sourcing additional funds from private industry led to him applying what he knew to produce goods and services, delivering a number of products that we know and love today, such as Smart Balance margarines.
As part of that process, navigating product development and innovation has also proven to be challenging when working with companies. A large motivation towards profit has meant a reduced focus on the health aspects of the products, particularly with healthier ingredients having greater costs.
While demonstrating affordable, healthier ingredients could be incorporated into products (namely dietary fiber from trees, plant sterols), Dan’s research showed it could be done affordably as well. Examples include the addition of Omega-3 to peanut butter, plant sterols to the cholesterol-reducing Corazonas snack bars and most famously, healthy fats to the Smart Balance fat blend products for improving blood cholesterol.
Although his research has very much been within the processed food space, Dan’s work has also ventured into other areas and applications within the food industry. Some no doubt stem from his focus on nutritional research as a scientist, others from his own personal experience as a consumer.
For example, Dan has used coffee beans to develop parbaked coffee bean flour where bakeries have tested and successfully baked a variety of pastries such as muffins, croissants and Tuscan bread. While being nutritionally rich in antioxidants, the added benefit of natural caffeine provides a viable alternative for caffeine consumption other than drinking coffee.
As for personal experience, Dan’s design of a drip-free glass wine bottle arose from the countless times he noticed red wine always dripping from conventional designs. After experimenting by cutting and grinding existing glass bottles, he was able to take his final design and come up with the drip-free wine bottles. Brandeis has pending and issued patents on this design and is available for licensing.
Learnings & Experiences
From the previous examples, it’s worth noting here Dan’s approach toward research and innovation. His keen eye and inquisitive mind sometimes enables him to effectively take different technologies and bring them together. It’s a real testament towards his versatility, adaptability and creativity as a scientist.
Besides his research, what else has Dan learned throughout his career?
Interestingly, his insights and reflections are quite simple: being self-critical. It’s important to be critical towards both oneself and the innovation one creates. In other words, ideas have to be practical and feasible to implement and execute. For commercialization purposes, they often must, for instance, allow a company to modify an existing process without the need to create a tool or process from scratch.
Innovation is a journey that Dan has always relished, with the challenge and enjoyment to create things of a practical nature. They’re experiences that Dan is eager to pass onto others.
When it comes to mentoring, Dan helps other inventors at Brandeis evaluate the feasibility of their inventions e.g. Do people want it, is there a need, would they be excited?… As for budding scientists or students looking to pursue a career in science, he identifies having the quality of being naturally curious and motivated to learn “why” within the sciences as key to success in a career that involves scientific research.
Looking to the Future
As for the future, Dan intends to continue pushing his technologies towards successful market adoption. In particular, his focus on nutrition certainly has a promising outlook with the way the food industry landscape is shifting towards health. With an increased desire for healthier eating, there’s a greater demand for better quality nutrition in dietary intake. For instance, Dan is exploring producing higher Omega-3 levels in farm-raised fish by improving their diet.
With more opportunities for innovation and commercialization, there is no doubt the future continues to look bright for Dan, both as a scientist and as a consumer.
“I’m a foodie-type of person. I’ve always liked to work in the kitchen, to cook and bake. Being a consumer, in shops, supermarkets or Trader Joe’s, I’ve always had my eye out looking for products, how one could either incorporate it into something else or improve it,” – Dan Perlman, Researcher and Inventor