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The ability to see beyond the boundaries of disciplines and industries is crucial in building new product markets

MSc (Econ.) Tiina Ritvala defends her doctoral thesis in the area of international business with the title “Actors and Institutions in the Emergence of a New Field: A Study of the Cholesterol-Lowering Functional Foods Market” at the Helsinki School of Economics on Wednesday December 19th, 2007.

Rapid scientific and technological progress has resulted in the blurring of traditional industry boundaries and in the emergence of new product markets at the intersection of established industries. Ritvala’s doctoral research examines actors and institutions in a new market from the perspective of their interaction at the intersection of industries and geographical regions.

Ritvala explores the topic through the emergence of cholesterol-lowering functional foods, such as the plant sterol margarines of Raisio Group and Unilever. The regular use of such foods has been scientifically proved to reduce cholesterol and, hence, improve heart health. This innovation combines the food, pharmaceuticals and forest industries. In her doctoral research Ritvala concentrates in Finland and the U.S., where succeeding with functional foods have been particularly challenging. The research is mainly based on a wide range of interviews carried out with key researchers in the field, managers, authorities as well as associations and societies.

The dissertation research investigates the institutional change in the perceived relationship between dietary cholesterol and heart disease since the scientific research of the 1950s and the North Karelia project of the 1970s. The focus of the research is the later cross-industry cooperation in the cholesterol-lowering food innovation and its commercialization.

The results of the study imply that individual scientists are in a key position to create novel cross-disciplinary and cross-industry knowledge, which may release the old beliefs and create a legitimate base for a new market. The emergence of a new field is, however, a complex phenomenon which necessitates the participation of a wide range of actors. The study reveals that a brilliant invention or product does not sell by itself, but necessitates a broad base of support, the mobilisation of which appears to be tightly connected to the institutional structures of a particular time and space and power relations between industries. Instead of wrong strategic decisions stressed earlier, particularly established care practices were central in explaining the weak demand for the European cholesterol-lowering functional foods in the U.S. where the role of the pharmaceuticals industry is extremely strong. Hence, an actor in a new market must be able to assess institutional differences between host and home markets.

In contrast to the strong tendency of specialization in the development of societies, this research implies that a broad cross-disciplinary understanding at individual-level contributes to innovativeness at the intersection of established industries and disciplines. This result seems to point towards an interpretation that a broad individual-level perspective caused by limited resources is the strength of small countries and organisations. Ritvala urges management to encourage cross-disciplinary and cross-industry cooperation and to analyse institutional differences between markets during internationalisation.

Terhi Ollikainen | alfa
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