Pepsi makes some of the world’s most familiar-tasting products. Mehmood Khan’s job is to figure out how to develop new, unfamiliar ones. As head of R&D, he has helped the company design a lower-sodium salt crystal and has used sophisticated aerospace-industry computers to create a crunchier Lay’s potato chip. Here’s what he’s cooking up now:
Every athlete’s body chemistry is different, so Khan has been working on new Gatorade formulas that are engineered to fit a variety of hydration needs. Last year, Pepsi teamed up with the Brazilian national soccer team to create custom formulas for each athlete on the squad. Smart bottles with built-in sip sensors detected how hydrated each player stayed throughout the game. “It’s a quantum leap for athletes,” says Khan.
Khan is collaborating with farmers in India to harvest cashew fruit–which is usually discarded after the more valuable nut is collected–and make a nutrient-rich juice that contains five times as much vitamin C as orange juice. Could it be the next coconut water?
With a $600 price tag and high electricity costs, Pepsi-branded refrigerators are an expensive proposition for many retailers, especially in the developing world. Khan is rolling out a more efficient version that costs less than a third of typical coolers and runs on solar power. The drinks aren’t quite as frosty, but that’s okay. “It turns out when it’s 104 degrees outside,” says Khan, “a Pepsi served at 50 degrees is plenty cold.”
Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?
Internally and externally, my inspiration comes from other people. Internally, I try to lead by example, and encourage my team to be curious, to challenge their assumptions, to find solutions, and to champion it. Externally, though, I try to attend conferences every month, and to visit universities. At the end of the day, creativity happens because of connectivity. You can’t do that sitting behind a desk all day.
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
There’s a greater power behind every person. For me, that’s my wife, who tells me what chores she expects me to do that day. Otherwise, though, the biggest thing is that I don’t schedule the first 30 minutes of my morning. That’s when I reflect, and ask myself, what is it that I’m really trying to do today? It’s like flying a plane: you need to monitor, observe, and make adjustments to your course.
What is one thing about your job that you think would surprise people?
Probably the depth and breadth of the science-to-business bridge. People think of Pepsi as a beverage company, but it takes a lot of science to make that happen. There’s just a huge, broad impact to my decisions: 1.3 billion humans consume one of the products I’m responsible for every day. Luckily, I think that responsibility is fun.
What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?
I spend time with my grandson. He’s six, and we play chess. I find it relieving and emotionally powerful. I also like to fly, and read about flying. The art and science of flight is a mental exercise that is just so different from what I do, but it requires an equally intense sort of focus. Flying helps me sharpen my mind in different ways, and achieve a better balance.
Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?
Right now, Scott Parazynski. Here’s this guy who finished his practice in medicine, then goes and tries to be an astronaut. He does five space shuttle missions, then climbs Mount Everest, and most recently, he just led an expedition to the South Pole. When I think I’m running out of energy, people like that are a sobering thought.