Innovation Profile: Dan Perlman ’68
When it comes to innovative inventions, you’ll be hard pressed to find such an interesting and diverse portfolio as Dan Perlman’s. With over 100 US and international patents (issued and pending), Dan’s work spans decades of research and development. Among its wide range of creations are laboratory and consumer products, including the well-known Smart Balance brand and Corazonas brand snack products.
From Brandeis at MIT to Brandeis again
As an accomplished scientist and inventor, Dan’s career began in molecular and cellular biology. After earning his bachelor’s degree from Brandeis in 1968, his research took him to the University of Wisconsin and MIT before returning to Brandeis University in 1978.
During this time, Dan’s research focus began to shift into the areas of applied food science. With a mix of NIH and private industry funding, his research interests in this space began to take hold. In particular, his interest in nutrition has led to many discoveries and their incorporation into consumer food products. For example, research into healthier natural fats led 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 on healthy fats, which resulted in patents and strong sales, Dan’s work extended to dietary fiber and essential vitamins, such as 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 finding different sources for better nutrition, it begs the question: where does Dan get his inspirations from?
Turns out Dan is a foodie at heart. Passionate about cooking, he likes to spend time in the kitchen to cook and bake. Moreover, as a consumer shopping in supermarkets, he has always been on the lookout for products, looking to bundle different products together or thinking about how they could be improved.
Combined with his scientific acumen, it’s clear to see where Dan’s motivation and passion for his research comes from.
Challenges and Opportunities – The Food Industry
Developing products and innovating in the field of human nutrition is far from a simple process, something Dan knows best as a researcher and inventor. The challenges associated with product development can be many and varied, especially when it comes to funding a scientist. In fact, this circumstantial factor proved to play a significant role in Dan’s foray into applied research. Seeking additional funds from private industry led him to apply what he knew to produce goods and services, offering a number of products we know and love today, such as Smart Margarines Balance.
As part of this process, navigating product development and innovation has also proven difficult when working with companies. A high profit motive has meant a reduced focus on the health aspects of products, especially with healthier ingredients having higher costs.
While demonstrating that affordable and healthier ingredients could be incorporated into products (i.e. dietary fiber from trees, plant sterols), Dan’s research showed that this could also be done at an affordable price. Examples include adding omega-3s to peanut butter, plant sterols to cholesterol-lowering Corazonas snack bars, and most famously, healthy fats to Smart Balance fat blend products to improve blood cholesterol.
Although his research is primarily in the processed food space, Dan’s work has also ventured into other areas and applications within the food industry. Some undoubtedly stem from his interest in nutritional research as a scientist, others from his own personal experience as a consumer.
For example, Dan has used coffee beans to develop pre-cooked coffee bean flour where bakeries have tested and successfully baked a variety of pastries such as muffins, croissants and Tuscan bread. While nutritionally rich in antioxidants, the added benefit of natural caffeine provides a viable alternative to caffeine consumption other than coffee consumption.
As far as personal experience goes, Dan’s design for a drip-proof glass wine bottle was born from the countless times he noticed that red wine was always dripping from conventional designs. After experimenting with 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 patents pending and issued on this design and is available for licensing.
Learnings and experiences
From the previous examples, it is worth noting here Dan’s approach to research and innovation. His keen eye and inquisitive mind sometimes allow him to effectively take different technologies and put them together. It is a true testament to his versatility, adaptability and creativity as a scientist.
Besides his research, what else has Dan learned throughout his career?
Interestingly, his ideas and thoughts are quite simple: be self-critical. It is important to be critical of yourself and of the innovation you create. In other words, the ideas must be practical and achievable to implement and execute. For marketing purposes, they often need to, for example, allow a company to modify an existing process without having to create a tool or process from scratch.
Innovation is a journey that Dan has always relished, with the challenge and pleasure of creating things that are practical in nature. These are experiences that Dan is eager to pass on to others.
When it comes to mentorship, Dan helps other Brandeis inventors assess the feasibility of their inventions, such as Do people want it, is there a need, would they be excited? identifies having the quality of being naturally curious and motivated to learn “why” in science as the key to success in a career that involves scientific research.
To look forward
Looking to the future, Dan intends to continue pushing his technologies towards successful market adoption. In particular, his interest in nutrition certainly has promising prospects with the way the landscape of the food industry is changing towards health. With an increased desire for healthier food, there is a greater demand for higher quality nutrition in food intake. For example, Dan plans to produce higher levels of omega-3s in farmed fish by improving their diet.
With more opportunities for innovation and commercialization, there is no doubt that the future continues to be bright for Dan, both as a scientist and as a consumer.
“I am a greedy type person. I have always loved working in the kitchen, cooking and baking. As a consumer, in stores, supermarkets or at Trader Joe’s, I have always looked for products, how they could either be incorporated into something else or improved upon. – Dan Perlman, researcher and inventor