Welcome to the fourth in our series of interviews with the team behind Humanativ. This month we caught up with Matthew Sharman, Head of Research and Development.
As Head of Research and Development at Humanativ what does your role entail?
My job is a varied role aimed at supporting the business. I can be involved in short-term work such as supporting commercial trials and making sure they are effective, to providing a technical perspective in commercial discussions and liaising with laboratories and other organisations about our work.
Longer-term my role focuses on development and innovation, exploring what the next generation of products might look like. In all cases it’s important that consumer views and challenges such as sustainability, raw material availability and legislation are fully considered. It’s my job to generate ideas and concepts which could develop our brand in the future. I’m always staying in the loop with what policy makers and influencers are doing to ensure our research aligns with relevant topics such as Government Policy or “Health of the Nation” type policies.
Could you tell us how you got to where you are today, was a career in research always on the cards?
Like many people when I left school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. Originally, I had thought about studying chemistry at university, but my A-Levels weren’t what they should have been, so I decided to get a job. I applied locally to what was then the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (known now as DEFRA), to work as a chemist in food safety, authenticity and quality. I started my career in the lab as a bench chemist, testing for chemical contaminants in foods which are regulated because of their safety concerns, such as mycotoxins.
I really enjoyed my role, and this was where my interest in what I call measurement science came from. A few years later I got a promotion which led me away from just conducting the routine analysis into doing more research. Once I became involved in research, it opened a few more doors for me, I began to get involved in European funded research where I worked with lots of research laboratories, universities, food companies, and regulatory organisations around Europe, and used that to develop my career. I ended up publishing about 75 papers within peer reviewed journals, all to do with the safety, quality, and authenticity of food. So that gave me good grounding on how you can use analytical sciences to chemically profile food and provide innovative solutions to the food industry.
I then worked in technical business development for a large R&D company. I always thought of myself then as a bit of a translator. In laboratories you have many experts who all talk their own scientific language, you then have big retailers and food processors who have their own technical teams and their own industry terminology. From my experience, experts in the laboratory didn’t always understand how best to communicate with people in food companies who wanted to know more about how complex scientific data and results will affect their business. So, it was my job to translate research into commercial insights from which businesses could benefit from.
In 2017 I joined Devenish as a Group Science and Technical Manager. This gave me my first involvement in the group’s omega-3 research and prepared me for the move to Head of R&D at Humanativ.
What do you enjoy most about your role in Humanativ?
The people, they’re all great! My colleagues make a great team, we are all focused on growing the business and feel supported by each other. I love the variety in my role, no one day is the same as the next. I get to do loads of exciting things, but I also have to get the more routine jobs done as well. I enjoy having the freedom to influence and generate our direction. The team are very open to hearing new ideas and thoughts which is great when you need to bounce thoughts and concepts off other people. I’m really looking forward to the future with Humanativ.
What is involved in setting up a trial, what’s the process?
Trials typically start with Jonny Lester, Head of Sales, talking to potential partners to scope what they would like to achieve. Then Eva Lewis, Head of Food Innovation, would generate a comprehensive study plan. Subsequently I work with Eva and Jonny to bring all the required analytical measurements together. It’s all about quality and validation, including about how do we test, when do we test and how can we prove that the omega-3 bio-enrichment of animals is effective when using the client’s specific processes.
Our trials with potential clients are very much a teamwork event where all our knowledge comes together to provide that expert support. We want to support our customer throughout the entire process, so we’re happy to be on the farm, in the mill, anywhere our customers need us, providing hands on support and advice. Our partnership with Mara Renewables Corporation, a Canadian based company, with expertise in the production of algal oil has allowed us to gain expert knowledge of the oil and how it can be further processed to make our unique product, OmegaPro.
What are you trying to find out from the trials? Bigger picture vs customer specific data
At Humanativ we have conducted a multitude of OmegaPro feeding trials. The primary aim is to make sure we comply with the legislation in a specific country so that validated on-pack health claims can be made. An on-pack health claim is a statement about the positive effect an omega-3 enriched product can have on human health; different countries have different requirements which must be met before an on-pack claim can be made. The trial is designed to demonstrate that we can make it our OmgeaPro product work in the specific production environment for our customer. Our trials also ensure that our product doesn’t just work once but works every time, in every food-producing animal. There are millions and millions of chickens being produced every day, and it’s our job to ensure that our customers products always comply with legislation.
The other trials I organise are the research trials where we’re trying to prove a new concept, so that relates to the longer-term innovation. Each of these trials are different, focusing on novel ideas and product development.
Could you tell us more about the InnovateUK project and what Humanativ aims to achieve?
I also manage an InnovateUK funded project under the “UK-Canada: enhancing agricultural productivity and sustainability R&D call”. This project, which is also part funded by the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program, which is all about developing the next generation of Omega-3 algal oil products and making them available to commercial markets worldwide.
The key objective of the project is to develop a more sustainably produced, nutrient dense, chicken that will provide a rich source of omega-3 oils in the human diet whilst enhancing the overall efficacy of poultry production.
The project has two main aims, the first is to improve the yield/bioavailability of omega-3 algal oils which would help to reduce carbon footprint. The second is something which we have been exploring more recently called the novel co-product, the algal biomass which remains after the oil has been extracted. This co-product has the potential to be used as an alternative protein source.
Improving the yield of omega-3 oil and utilising the co-product, will certainly with the aim of achieving net zero agriculture emissions and will help us on the next step of our sustainability journey.
What are your main hobbies and interests outside of work?
I play squash two or three times a week. I really enjoy the social aspect of it, it’s great to be able to be ‘slightly competitive’ and meet up with friends after work to play.
In the summer months I go dinghy sailing. I’ve used these skills to volunteer with my local scout group, teaching sailing and kayaking on the river in York. I’ve really enjoyed volunteering, it’s great to be able to give something back to my local community.