Open Innovation

Unilever gets serious on open innovation

Unilever (UNA), the world’s second-biggest FMCG products maker, unveiled a website to gather and assess ideas from outside the company as it looks to bolster sales from new products and improve environmental practices, an extension of its open innovation strategy which it began in 2009.

The site will focus on sustainable business ideas, Roger Leech, Unilever’s open innovation scouting director, said in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek. Unilever will solicit ideas from universities, engineering and design companies, and environmental groups around the world, he said.

The website lists these as key focus areas or ‘wants’:

  • Safe drinking water: Bringing safe water to the world’s poorest people.
  • Fighting viruses: New active ingredients that combat viruses.
  • Better packaging: Lighter and more sustainable packaging.
  • Sustainable washing: New technologies for sustainable washing.
  • Less salt: Reduce the amount of sodium in food.
  • Amazing toothpaste: New sensations, new flavours, and new ingredients.
  • Preserving food, naturally: Natural methods for preserving food.
  • Storing renewable energy: Bringing cost-effective energy to millions.
  • Sustainable showering: Ideas about sustainable showering.

Leech maintains that the approach allows products to reach market faster than relyling on its own R&D team alone, and cites a fruit tea and low-fat mayonaise as successful NPD arising out of the model.

While Unilever has a long track-record of partnering to develop products – last year the company collaborated with more than 500 partners – but this is the first time that its research projects and ‘wants’ have been shared so publicly in an open forum.

For instance, it has said possible approaches to salt reduction might include “salt alternatives, technologies that address sensory and taste perception by addressing salt receptors on the tongue, or tools and devises to help educate consumers about salt levels,”  adding that it does not want not methods that involve artificial additives or e-numbers or currently available blends of potassium salts.

Unilever’s new open approach mimics the G-WIN innovation platform of US food manufacturer General Mills, where the company also publishes detailed lists of technical problems it is trying to solve.

The Anglo-Dutch group maintains that this open innovation model will help underline its ambition of doubling the size of its business while reducing its environmental impact.

While fully-formed technolgies are welcome, Leech says that due to the nature of some of the challenges posted on the platform, the company recognises that it will have to undertake additional work with suppliers in relation to bringing submitted solutions to fruition.

Leech commented: “We know that the world is full of brilliant people with brilliant ideas, and we are constantly looking for new ways to tap into this potential by working with partners who have a fresh, serious approach to developing exciting new technology.”

A third-party will initially review the projects sent in by potential collaborators.

Food preservation techniques

Unilever’s new platform also reveals that the food manufacturer is seeking new means of achieving broad spectrum anti-microbial stability.

“We’d like to achieve that naturally, with alternatives to synthetic additives – specifically in the aqueous phase of water in oil spreads, oil in water emulsions, and intermediate moisture foods for savoury applications,” it said.

The firm said it is waiting to hear from potential partners who are working on new food preservation techniques which are mild and natural and it indicates that developments in the area of plant extracts or other natural ingredients, or new blends of them, which have anti-microbial properties would be of interest.

Unilever also suggests that it would be interested in hearing about traditional biocide products from other industries that are based on natural methods but have not yet been used in food or technologies and processing techniques that have yet to reach the market.

It stresses that any such development must meet its basic criteria, and expanding on this, the firm said any new compound must limit the growth of one or more bacillus, lactobacillus, yeast or mould, it must be accepted as ‘natural’ by consumers and new compounds must be stable.

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