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Unilever - Open innovation is a strategic priority

As one of the world's largest consumer-goods companies, Unilever has always enjoyed an open culture. However, open innovation is now a critical functional capability for Unilever - and one which it aims to see going onwards and upwards.

Innovation UK talks to Jonathan Hague, Vice President Open Innovation, Unilever Research and Development about the exciting and challenging times ahead.

Q How would you explain the concept of open innovation at Unilever?

Jonathan Hague Quite simply, it?s about achieving bigger, better and faster through partnership, creating value that neither partner could have delivered alone.

Q What steps has Unilever taken to go from ?closed? to ?open? innovation? Do you feel that has now become an integral part of the development of Unilever?

JH First, I would say that Unilever has always been open, and enjoyed an open culture. There are many examples where Unilever has collaborated to innovate in the past, although it is fair to say that our approach was fragmented. That?s changed now, with the creation of open innovation as a critical functional capability. This signals a step change in our commitment ? open innovation is a strategic priority for Unilever.

The website is one channel worth having and investing in, and if you look on our website you will see that it has been upgraded and integrated into the Unilever website ( Unilever have committed to revamping it further in 2010, but it is by no means the be all and end all. Our team of professional scouts search in a raft of places, and we have a number of strategic relationships with suppliers and academia.

Q What would you say are the critical success factors for open innovation?

JH I think it boils down to three things: an open mindset; the ability to build strong relationships based on mutual trust; and value creation for both parties. How value creation is defined will depend on the partner, and the ability to define that stems from an understanding of a partner?s values and culture.

Q CEO Paul Polman has said that the key to accelerating the rate of innovation in Unilever will be about ?increasingly creating separate structures within and outside the organisations to attract the creativity and the start-up mentalities and risk environment needed to get ideas to blossom?. Can you tell us how this is being implemented?

JH Towards the end of last year, Unilever created and launched our new business unit, which brings together all new business activities into one place under the leadership of our chief technology officer. Open innovation will be a key enabler to the success of this new unit.

Q Tell us a little more about Unilever and its ?Want Find Get Manage? approach to open innovation.

JH It?s a commonsense approach that came from external best practice (Roche, Slowinski) and one which Unilever has adopted and, to some extent, adapted. Unilever uses it as a framework rather than a rigid process. It forms a basis for our teaching programmes that aim to embed open innovation in the organisation. It also provides the framework for how Unilever underpins the professional skills for open innovation ? the need to define, to scout, to make deals, and so on.

Q Unilever has defined five key scientific platforms (?Advanced Measurement and Data Modelling?; ?Bioscience?; ?Nutrition and Health?; ?Sensation, Perception and Behaviour?; ?Structured Materials and Process Science?). What is their role in establishing partnerships?

JH Unilever platforms are about delivering in the longer term, which means in practice that they focus more on leads, scouting in academia and start-ups for new technology for future delivery.

Q Can you give examples of successful collaborative ventures that Unilever has undertaken?

JH We have many examples, and a selection of case studies is featured on the Unilever website. Our water purifier, PureIt, is one of them, and one which also illustrates our commitment to doing well by doing good, through open innovation. PureIt is a low-cost and accessible water purifier for the Asian market. It was developed with technology partners, government bodies in India and also scientific and public health bodies. Unilever is very proud of the fact that it has won numerous awards, including from UK Trade and Investment, and the Water Digest award supported by UNESCO for the best domestic non-electric water purifier.

Unilever also has academic partnerships, and one case in point is our collaboration with Liverpool University, Centre for Material Discovery, which started through a shared grant funded from the EU and the North West Development Agency back in 2007. In the interim, Unilever has jointly developed a capability in high-throughput chemistry and informatics which allows us to screen many more molecules, much more quickly in our formulation development. This has been a hugely successful collaboration, during which we have built a very passionate team together ? we actually are tenants in the University ? which has reaped many benefits for both Unilever and Liverpool CMD.

Q You once said the ?greatest transformation has been the change in the company?s mind set: an acknowledgement that it is possible to achieve through partnership more than we can achieve alone?. What other lessons do you feel Unilever has learned about open innovation over the years?

JH There are very many lessons learned, but the trick is to act on those lessons. It?s clear that there are many ways of open innovating; it?s an umbrella term and we have to be flexible in the ways that we use the different models of OI, and recognise which model is best in which situation. This comes with experience. One theme does emerge ? a fast ?no? is better than a long ?maybe?. It boils down to honesty and integrity.

Q How does Unilever motivate its employees to become more externally orientated?

JH Unilever has a well-communicated and understood performance culture. Our standards of leadership have driven external orientation as a behaviour over the past number of years.

Q How do you think Unilever can develop its role in UK innovation?

JH The UK is where Unilever started and it remains one of our big home markets. We?re a major employer of R&D talent and the UK is a major source of innovation for us. Given this, we need a presence and an increased profile, which Unilever aims to achieve by being more explicit about our innovation wants and also in participating and attending more conferences on innovation.

Q What types of people and businesses would Unilever like to be approached by?

JH Anyone, as long as there is a complementarity.

Q Unilever has just announced better than expected results, despite the challenging economic conditions. How has the company?s open innovation activities contributed to this growth?

JH It would be disingenuous to suggest that Unilever results are down to open innovation. It is really much more to do with the CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman, transforming the company to a performance culture, but within that open innovation has definitely played a part. For example, our strong relationships with strategic suppliers have helped bring innovation and manage our cost base.

Q What does the future hold for Unilever in the field of open innovation?

JH Unilever will continue to find new ways to innovate and experiment with partners to drive growth in the business. Our new mission also focuses on the environment and, on that basis, sustainable futures will feature more prominently than ever. It will be a really exciting and challenging time.

Jonathan Hague

Jon joined Unilever in 1990 as a research scientist at Port Sunlight Laboratory, UK. After assignments in Jakarta and Illinois, he returned to Port Sunlight in 2006. His role as VP Open Innovation started in October 2008. This is a good fit for Jon?s interests in driving higher ambition (bigger, better, faster) in innovation.



Added the 26 April 2010 in category Innovation UK Vol6-1

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