“In many ways,” says Samantha Samaras, Unilever VP of Science and Technology for Beauty and Personal Care, “the questions people ask of science haven’t changed. We’ve always been asked: ‘How can I protect my family; clean my skin; improve my health and wellbeing?’”
Instead, the change has been in the digital tools and the speed in developing new products to answer them. “Twenty years ago, or even ten,” says Samantha, “it took years to clone a gene; now the same work can be done in a fraction of the time, at a fraction of the cost.
“And through the ability to look at large sets of complex data using AI and machine learning, not only can we learn more, more quickly, we can also learn things we couldn’t learn before, and that is where innovation is heading.”
And that innovation continues to accelerate.
Currently, Unilever has a portfolio of more than 20,000 patents. AI, robotics, data and digital modelling – combined with intellectual property and the expertise of over 5,000 R&D professionals in 60+ countries around the world – mean that it is adding to this number at a rate of hundreds of patents a year, which is a key driver of business growth.
It also means that – when it comes to scientific ‘firsts’ – Unilever has more than its fairshare. Some 20 years of research into the human microbiome, for example, has led to more than 100 patents in this space.
It’s seen the development of products such as Zendium, a toothpaste that uses natural enzymes and proteins to boost good mouth bacteria and help improve gum health and fight bad breath. It has led to the understanding of mild cleansing of the Dove cleansers that are ‘microbiome gentle’.
And it’s seen an increase in successful collaborations, such as one with the University of York to identify a unique enzyme responsible for armpit odour, known popularly as BO.
More relationships like this are a given. Global challenges such as climate change, broken food systems and discrimination are too big to conquer alone. Partnering with academia and the smartest companies to explore, develop and scale technologies that enable change for the better means we expect 70% of our future innovations to come from collaborations.