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Fast tracking discovery at the Materials Innovation Factory


This new centre of excellence part-funded by Unilever provides a collaborative workspace for academics and industry to share open innovations, robotic tech and digital capabilities to accelerate R&D

Labs Science

In science, eureka moments such as the one supposedly experienced by master mathematician Archimedes are rare.

Few discoveries rely on an idea prompted by topping up the water in your bath tub. In most cases, proving a theory takes years of lab time and a significant amount of funds.

However, the increasing need in industry to get new ideas to market fast means that traditional methods are behind the pace of modern requirements.

Increasingly, innovation comes from strong ecosystems which allow the sharing of expertise. To compete successfully, collaboration is key.

The Materials innovation Factory (MIF)
Open-access and cutting-edge tech makes MIF an R&D role model

The best minds, researchers and cutting-edge tools under one roof

It’s timely, therefore, that October 2018 saw the official opening of a new centre of excellence located at the University of Liverpool, one of the world’s leading academic institutions for materials science.

The Materials Innovation Factory (MIF) sees leading academics, researchers, start-ups and global corporations, alongside bespoke robots and digitally enabled capabilities, all located under one roof.

Unilever is a founding partner and funder of the MIF and has had a relationship with the university for more than 100 years.

Enabling collaboration with leading thinkers from around the world

The MIF’s status as an open-access facility means researchers from any organisation can use its equipment or technicians to test and move forward their own work.

As David Blanchard, Chief Category R&D Officer, told the audience at its official launch, it’s not only the “physical embodiment of our digital agenda at Unilever. It is a role model for R&D of the future”.

Using leading-edge tech to maintain and find competitive advantage

The building boasts one of the highest concentrations of automated equipment for materials chemistry anywhere in the world.

The ability for robotic testing and analytics to generate robust and reproducible data many times faster than traditional methods not only frees up researchers’ time from repetitive lab work but also frees up their minds to focus on the next generation of new ideas.

Unilever has already used the MIF’s facilities in this capacity. Our Home Care division has been using one of their most advanced robots to develop laundry products that meet local consumer needs in a number of markets around the world in a matter of days and weeks instead of months.

The simulations offer the product team multiple benefits, explains Unilever R&D’s Programme Director at the MIF, Mark Newman. “Variability is especially high when more than one person does the same experiment; it improves when it done by the same person and improves further when it’s automated, so we get significantly better quality data.

“Because the robots run 24/7, they are typically five to ten times faster at generating results. And because all their data is captured centrally, it’s available directly to all R&D staff globally. All of this means we can accelerate the speed of product development and the time it takes to get that new product to consumers.”

Accelerating patents and first-to-market innovations

The MIF’s work moves beyond new product formulations into emerging spheres of research, such as work on the human microbiome.

“Most people are aware of products that promote good gut bacteria. Well, the human microbiome extends beyond the gut. It has now been shown that bacteria are a critical part of many of our life processes,” explains Mark.

Research into the bacteria that populate the skin and the mouth are of particular interest to Unilever, and utilising MIF facilities and expertise has enabled first-to-market innovations such as Zendium toothpaste.

For decades, people believed that brushing away all mouth bacteria was the best way to keep dental problems at bay. Zendium proved that not all bacteria are bad.

A child sitting in a dentist's chair
Market-leading research The MIF’s work on the human microbiome helped accelerate first-to-market innovations such as Zendium toothpaste

Advanced DNA-sequencing techniques carried out by the MIF Omics, revealed that in 14 weeks, Zendium’s natural protein and enzyme formula toothpaste could positively influence the natural bacterial ecosystem present in the mouth by significantly increasing good bacteria and reducing bad ones responsible for dental problems.

“This is only the beginning,” adds David Blanchard. “The Materials Innovation Factory will be an intellectual property powerhouse for materials chemistry.

“We estimate the rate of patenting to be two to three times the Unilever average, helping us to drive commercial impact globally,” he says.

Less plastic, better plastic, no plastic

The MIF’s interdisciplinary partnerships are also helping move forward innovations in areas where consumers are pushing industry globally for faster results – in particular with plastic.

“Unilever are heavily investing in R&D to solve the plastics in the environment issue,” says Mark Newman. “Today there are three streams of activity focusing on less plastic, better plastic and no plastic.

“We know each of these cannot be solved by Unilever in isolation. Each requires significant collaboration, typically with the supplies of the raw materials, especially in the better plastic/no plastic arena,” he says.

“The first stage, less plastic, is being led through innovative design. Unilever packaging designers are constantly looking at how we can reduce the weight of plastic used and still deliver a packaging solution that meets the extended supply-chain demands. A recent redesign of shampoo bottles launched in China and South East Asia resulted in a 25% reduction in plastic waste.

A group of people sorting through recycled material as it passes by on a conveyor belt
Industry and academics working on the quality/performance of reused plastic

“Initiatives concerning better plastics are partly around the use of post-consumer recycled plastics. This has challenges because the quality of reused plastic is variable, and the highest-quality recycled plastic is becoming very expensive.

“To this end, we are working with academics at the MIF to understand the relationship between the chemical properties of recycled plastic and its performance. How strong is it? What colour is it? What’s its smell? Is it safe? This is a big challenge, but if we crack it, it will allow us to reuse more plastic waste with no impact on consumers,” he adds.

Being located on a university campus known for its advances in materials chemistry also has benefits for the final challenge of no plastic. “We are now tapping into the views and ideas from Generation Z, the youngest consumers that Unilever has, who are just beginning to make purchasing choices for FMCG products,” says Mark.

“We have posed a challenge to all 16,000 students at University of Liverpool on how we might lessen the environmental impact of the packaging we use. The best will be asked to pitch their ideas to a panel of experts with a view to taking them forward as real projects,” he adds.

As David Blanchard acknowledges: “We are working to ensure that all of our plastic packaging is fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. But we don’t have all the answers and the biggest issues facing the world cannot be addressed by one company alone.”

“Systems-level change needs collaboration to succeed,” he adds. “We continually need new ideas and ways of working that challenge us to think differently.”

“We are committed to making sure our products and processes have a positive impact on the world. Working together in this space is already delivering value to our innovation programmes and to the shared vision of the digital transformation of science,” he says.

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