Great minds have touted the unsung value of humility over hubris. Listening more intently, managing with compassion and motivating through action will assure a respected leader – and scientist.
Held as a trailblazing powerhouse at the top of her field, Ana Cristina Vega-Lugo, PhD, is a respected scientist who has spent the past 15 years honing her knowledge and expertise in the expansive food science field.
As the scientific manager at the Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre, she stands out for her intellect, passion for learning and inspiring the young minds she mentors.
And since arriving at Niagara College’s Research & Innovation division in 2017, Vega-Lugo has become integral to the key milestones that have made the CFWI Innovation Centre a leading-edge food and beverage accelerator, solving complex industry challenges.
It has been said that leading a team to success is akin to conducting an orchestra. Everybody has certain skills and strengths and needs someone with a keen ear to bring all the parts together, and instill confidence.
Orchestrating all of the Centre’s applied research projects and technical services, Vega-Lugo sets the tempo with the calm ease of a conductor, bringing out the best in the ensemble of food science and safety experts, complemented by student researchers.
The last handful of years has been an innovative whirlwind for the Centre: A new research space, new laboratories, a beverage centre of excellence, major research grant money, and founding new frontiers in cannabis edibles research. One might say this is a well-synchronized performance of firsts.
CHOREOGRAPHING A PILOT PLANT
The most ambitious project by far has seen Vega-Lugo choreograph the installation of the Centre’s new beverage and liquids R&D pilot processing plant – a pioneering facility for short-run, small-batch product development solutions for beverage manufacturers looking to innovate.
The idea for the inventive scaling solution was brought forth after industry research by CFWI Innovation Centre manager Lyndon Ashton identified the notable gap for early-stage concept development and test market prototyping for companies to grow and compete.
Instrumental in designing the food process flows and the quality-assurance food safety program, Vega-Lugo also manages all plant staff. And as the technical and scientific lead, she headed the procurement, delivery and installation of more than $1.5 million in industrial equipment and involved collaboration with the facilities management services and finance departments.
~ It has been said that leading a team to success is akin to conducting an orchestra. Everybody has certain skills and strengths and needs someone with a keen ear to bring all the parts together, and instill confidence. ~
It was a monumental undertaking by any standards, but the fact the beverage processing plant is housed on the third floor of an educational institute – likely the only of its kind – takes the logistics to another level, explains Vega-Lugo.
Some weighing hundreds of pounds, the processing equipment and machinery had to get delivered to the third floor, on only a passenger elevator. And then there were engineering considerations surrounding plumbing and utilities for the high-tech equipment.
“It was most definitely a learning adventure for everyone involved.”
Vega-Lugo says it became immediately apparent at the start that such a project would have to be completed in a “non-traditional” way and that everyone involved would need an open mind. She credits her team and the facilities management services for thinking outside the box.
“There were all these physical restrictions for receiving the equipment. We had to do the unpacking and assembling on the first level, so we could bring every single part to the third level.”
The process, which spanned about four years, involved the most difficult detail: finding the right supplier and equipment to fit the space.
“Going back and forth with suppliers was likely the biggest challenge,” recalls Vega-Lugo. “We wanted state-of-the-art equipment used in the food industry on a very small scale, so it fits through the door.”
Today, the research team is finalizing small renovations, doing trials of the equipment and developing rigorous safety and quality programs to get a licence for production from Health Canada.
A CANNABIS OVERTURE
As a self-described “science nerd,” one thing beyond the scope of Vega-Lugo’s imagination was one day being involved with anything – whatsoever – to do with cannabis.
But when the opportunity for research into cannabis edibles presented itself – borne mainly from the gaping hole in research and the need for safe products in the marketplace – Vega-Lugo stepped up to the podium.
She picked up the baton, designed the landmark CFWI Innovation Centre’s Cannabis Edibles Research program, and, together with Ashton, secured a research licence from Health Canada to assist the food and beverage sector.
In parallel, she and her team took a deep dive into learning about the key interactions with active ingredients like CBD (cannabidiol) and THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol – the key psychoactive component in cannabis) for cannabis-infused edibles.
“The learning curve was steep, and on top of that, there are so many unknowns in the cannabis area, so there are few research papers,” Vega-Lugo explains, adding there was a race to learn the research because the industry was already launching products without knowing everything.
The cannabis edibles program is currently underway, helping eager industry partners, with Vega-Lugo overseeing the projects.
Ana Cristina Vega-Lugo, PhD, mentors student research assistants in product development and sensory testing at the CFWI Innovation Centre.
SCIENCE CENTRE STAGE
Vega-Lugo has proven she’s just as comfortable and competent behind a microphone as she is behind a microscope.
This is an obvious perk since she represents the Centre, speaking at numerous national and international conferences and events on subjects involving food safety, food waste reuse, food quality, packaging and emerging trends and opportunities.
“Things are a bit different than 10 years ago. Before a presentation, I would spend a lot of time preparing all this research. I still prepare, but now I’m asked more about my experience,” she muses.
More and more small- and medium-sized food and beverage companies are interested in learning how their problems can be solved in a realistic way; and how they can get an innovative idea from concept to shelf – without risking a lot of money.
Vega-Lugo also takes the opportunity to assist food and beverage start-ups in the annual Food Scale-Up Pitch Competition hosted by SIAL Canada, a leading name in the agri-food industry. As a judging panellist, she has served alongside other industry leaders, investors, retailers and technical advisors. And at the 2022 event, she assumes the role of president of the jury.
The CFWI Innovation Centre also donates a coveted prize for winners to work with Vega-Lugo and her research team.
Her message about innovation is not reserved solely for grown-ups – she also takes centre stage in several videos aimed at viewers aged 5 to 13. In an effort to bring science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) awareness to schools, the non-profit Scientists in School captures Vega-Lugo as she describes what’s involved in a career as a food scientist.
MAESTRO OF SOLUTIONS
It’s befitting that an institution’s scientific and technical leader solving innovative problems is solutions-oriented. In fact, Vega-Lugo has an instant reflex to find a solution whenever a challenge is even nearby.
Over the years, she has worked on hundreds of applied research projects and technical services at the CFWI Innovation Centre’s Technology Access Centre (TAC) fee-for-service (providing companies access to specialized technology, equipment and expertise).
She has brought onboard mega-companies like Bacardi Canada Inc. – a subsidiary of Bacardi Ltd., the largest privately held spirits company globally – for consumer acceptance and sensory testing, and has guided her team through countless recipe creations for Rich Products, a multinational food-products corporation.
~ More and more small- and medium-sized food and beverage companies are interested in learning how their problems can be solved in a realistic way; and how they can get an innovative idea from concept to shelf — without risking a lot of money. ~
Yet, perhaps closest to her heart in the world of challenge and solutions is product development. One such challenge was presented a few years back by start-up company DistillX Beverages Inc. who wanted help from the Centre to develop a distilled non-alcoholic gin – something that hadn’t been done before in Canada.
It was a formidable task, especially in producing a distilled non-alcoholic gin when all the flavour is first derived with help from ethanol. The proprietary process involves a unique method incorporating maceration of spices and distillation.
The challenge was so complex that Vega-Lugo had to keep motivation and confidence levels in the team high to prevent discouragement. She explains that it is not easy to innovate, and it is not easy to run against the current.
“It was a great experience for the students because they saw that it was possible to overcome a challenge that some could say was impossible. It worked, and the company has gone so far.”
Sobrii O-Gin has been an overnight success in the market, garnering massive media attention and even landing a Dragon Den’s partnership for the owner. Vega-Lugo’s research team was engaged again to create another distilled non-alcoholic spirit: Sobrii 0-Tequila launched this past October.
A REPERTOIRE OF MILESTONES
To carry through the orchestra metaphor, the Centre has put in the work during rehearsals – the stage has been set and the team is ready for opening night.
“I feel like this is actually the beginning,” she says. “We are really just creating the first solid fundamental base, and it’s going to grow. It is critical because this phase is going to determine how far we can grow, so it’s key.
“We’re just starting to fly!”