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Unilever - The power of more

Vice President of Open Innovation, Jonathan Hague, talks about how Vitality characterises the company's culture and its open approach to innovation

Jonathan Hague

As one of the world?s largest consumer goods companies, Unilever has the power to reach millions. Around 160 million times a day, someone, somewhere in the world, buys a Unilever brand.

That kind of global reach makes it enormously exciting to work in innovation for Unilever. You feel that you can really make a difference because your innovations can reach so many people: it is both a wonderful opportunity and a huge responsibility.

Focusing on Vitality means we strive to contribute to quality of life and wellbeing in all sorts of ways, from nutritional advances, to new toothbrush technology, to inventing a handy, low-cost water purifier for parts of the world where clean water is scarce.

There?s no question that an open approach to innovation is essential. Smart collaboration between ourselves and our partners allows us to leverage a greater mix of technologies, speeds up time to market and so delivers value that none of us could have achieved on our own. Unilever has been collaborating to innovate in many parts of the business for years, building our skills and expertise through a wide variety of successful partnerships. Recently though, we have stepped up our commitment by making open innovation a strategic priority. Across all our business there is an unrivalled opportunity right now for partners to exploit innovative leads, especially those that can cross product boundaries to deliver on our Vitality mission.

As our CEO Paul Polman has said, accelerating the rate of innovation in Unilever will be about ?increasingly tapping into open innovation, increasingly broadening the definition of the business models, increasingly creating separate structures within and outside the organisation to attract the creativity and the startup mentalities and risk environment needed to get ideas to blossom.?

How do we do open innovation?

Open innovation is first of all a mindset. We would rather work with someone who has the answer today than hold out in the hope we can eventually come up with it ourselves tomorrow. Our agreement with Cynosure to develop light-based skin-care treatments is a good example of that (see box).

It is also about skills and capabilities and Unilever has learned and developed a lot in that respect over the past several years. We have people across the business trained and dedicated to scouting for solutions and we regularly tap into technology networks and ideas brokerage. Our own web-based ideas space is being totally revamped and upgraded for 2010.

We also invest in collaborative research. Since 2000, Unilever has funded a world-leading research group within the Department of Chemistry at Cambridge University. The Unilever Centre of Molecular Informatics focuses on devising new methods for the understanding of molecules and their properties and novel in-silico experimentation and will help to transform the way we do R&D in the future. Our venture capital funds, Unilever Ventures, Physic Ventures and Langholm, provide funding and management skills to start-up and early stage consumer-facing and technologybased businesses across Europe and North America and invest in technology- driven companies and funds that aim to improve personal and planetary health.

Finally, our intellectual property, legal, IT and finance expertise is increasingly switched on to the particular challenges and demands of open innovation.

Open for business

Unilever believes that its long-term growth goes hand in hand with ensuring a sustainable future for the planet and its people. Increasingly we are finding that we can only achieve our objectives if we find more sustainable ways of doing business ? what we describe as ?doing well by doing good?.

Our quest for Vitality both drives and characterises our collaborations. When Unilever and Starbucks teamed up to form an alliance so both could introduce new products through routes they wouldn?t otherwise have had access to, Starbucks Global Consumer Products President Gerry Lopez stressed that: ?Unilever?s industry-leading innovation and commitment to social responsibility with brands like Ben & Jerry?s are well-aligned with our values and vision for the business.?

In our foods business, through brands like Bertolli, Knorr and Flora, we are constantly looking for ways to make the healthy choice an easy choice. That means getting foods to taste great with less salt, sugar and fat. It also means constantly striving to source more sustainably, including reducing water consumption in our factories and in agriculture. With our home and personal-care brands, like Cif and Lifebuoy, and our marketing and distribution reach, we have the opportunity and responsibility to contribute to improving hygiene and wellbeing around the world. Do we welcome approaches from potential collaborators? Absolutely. Unilever is interested in working with partners from the smallest technology start-up to major international organisations in our quest for Vitality. We are open to doing business in innovation.

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Unilever sees a promising long-term opportunity in the emerging consumer market for light-based devices, like home-use laser treatment, for skin rejuvenation and skin care. So, in July 2009, it signed a multi-year, funded co-operative agreement with Cynosure, Inc., a leading developer and manufacturer of a broad array of lightbased aesthetic treatment systems.

?We selected Cynosure as our development partner because of the company?s ability to develop and bring leading-edge technology into the marketplace and its demonstrated success as an innovator in the physician- based aesthetic market,? said Chief Research and Development Officer, Geneviève Berger.

In turn, ?Unilever represents an ideal partner for us,? said Cynosure?s President and Chief Executive Officer Michael Davin. ?We view this agreement as a first step in forming a meaningful long-term strategic relationship with Unilever and an attractive business opportunity for Cynosure. Unilever is a recognised leader in skincare products, including a broad array of established consumer brands such as Dove, Pond?s and Vaseline. Its world-class distribution, marketing and branding capabilities for home skin-care products are second to none. With its global footprint, Unilever has the scale to successfully launch and distribute light-based products into the consumer market.?

Water partnerships

Unilever?s action on water sustainability illustrates the range and variety of collaborations and partnerships we engage in. Recognising that some two billion people in the world do not have access to clean water, one project involved working together with technology partners, government bodies in India and scientific and public health institutions to develop a low-cost and accessible water purifier.

PureIt gives water that is free from harmful bacteria, viruses and parasites, thereby protecting children and families from waterborne diseases, without depending on cooking gas, electricity and pressurised tap water and at an affordable price. It has received numerous awards including the Innovation award from UK Trade & Investment and the Water Digest award supported by UNESCO for the best domestic non-electric water purifier.

Added the 06 October 2009 in category Innovation UK Vol5-2

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Tags: Open Innovation, Unilever, innovation, chemistry