In the bio-measurement lab at the Materials Innovations Factory at the University of Liverpool, one of Unilever’s global research hubs, R&D scientists are hard at work testing handwash and surface cleansers to further improve their effectiveness.
Ellie the Robot is a key part of the team, speeding up their microbiological testing, allowing them to analyse larger datasets and complete more lab work in a shorter space of time. In fact, all of the centre’s robots are known by a name, not serial numbers, because each has a part to play in the search for the next scientific development, including one that could provide additional amour in the world’s fight against Covid-19.
Same questions, different tools, speedier science
“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.
Harnessing the drive to make a difference
Scientists are fuelled by curiosity. “We want to know what the next question is because we want to make a difference,” says Samantha. “I still get a buzz when I find products on the shelves with a patent that I worked on, to appreciate that ‘I did that’.”
And Unilever R&D’s mission is to tap into that curiosity. To innovate boldly for people and planet while ensuring everything it creates will:
- improve the health of the environment and the natural world
- improve people’s lives and build their confidence, and
- increase inclusivity.
Each goal is equally important, each helps shape the other, just as three sides define a triangle.
Creating the perfect triangle
The next question for Unilever scientists is how we use our expertise to create that perfect triangle. “We want a perfect triangle that provides people with superior products and experiences that offer value and are created in a way that is planet positive,” Samantha says.
In the week when the United Nations recognises , and celebrates innovative problem-solving and its positive impact on economic, social and sustainable development, we want to share just some of the ‘make a difference’ products recently launched by Unilever that fit that perfect triangle and that were made possible by the science and innovation of Unilever R&D.
“Innovation and creativity are fundamental to our society and in making progress on the big challenges and opportunities in front of us,” says Unilever’s Chief R&D Officer Richard Slater. “The UN’s World Creativity and Innovation Day is an important chance to reflect on our work in research and development. We must stay curious, be close to the cutting edge of science and technology – and keep focused on finding solutions to the big challenges that matter most to people and to our planet,” he says.
Four products with the R&D ‘wow’ factor
1. Cif ecorefill, a dilute-at-home refill that cuts back on plastic packaging (1 of 4)
Cif ecorefill is an innovative dilute-at-home format that provides consumers with the same effective cleaning product but in a pack that uses 75% less plastic than the ordinary spray bottle.
The Cif inside the packaging is a ten-times concentrated liquid. Digital modelling was used by the R&D team to create a liquid with optimal viscosity, that pours easily and mixes well with water.
In collaboration with partner and packaging expert Kompak, its packaging was designed with a patented release mechanism that makes an audible click. This provides consumers an intuitive, safe and mess-free solution without the risk of spills.
2. A plant-based burger that tastes, looks and cooks like meat (2 of 4)
To ensure that the Vegetarian Butcher’s tastes like meat, looks like meat and cooks like meat, our food scientists worked to ensure that its plant-based proteins firmed up like beef does when cooked. All its proteins are made up of amino acids that change their structure when heated, making the right consistency for the patty. And thanks to the Maillard chemical reaction which creates the delicious taste of seared steak or brown bread crust, The Vegetarian Butcher’s raw burger turns brown and richer in flavour, just like a burger made of beef.
3. Sharing learnings and shaping products for melanin-rich skin (3 of 4)
Melanin protects skin from UV light and slows signs of ageing, but melanin-rich skin is also more prone to being dry and sensitive to irritants, which can lead to hyper-pigmentation and dark spots.
Backed by 50 years of expertise in melanin-rich skin biology and co-created with a network of dermatologists of colour and a community of consumers, Unilever’s skin scientists created Melé skincare products for melanin-rich skin. The products boost the skin’s natural resilience, improve uneven skin tone, absorb quickly and moisturise without being oily.
To establish better understanding of melanin-rich skin among dermatologists and skincare specialists, we’re also sharing our learnings through an education programme, so we can make skincare inclusive together.
4. Harnessing a natural enzyme’s cleaning power for dishes (4 of 4)
Foam along the seashore is a sign of naturally occurring soaps – more specifically biosurfactants that break down oils and fats. One set of biosurfactants are called rhamnolipids. These were discovered by our scientists during research into natural enzymes that could replace carbon-based ingredients in household products with renewable and biodegradable alternatives.
With the support of our partner, Evonik, we scaled up production. Microbes living in a container are fed with sugar and oil to produce biosurfactant, which is purified and used in our Quix dishwashing liquid. It cleans dishes at cold temperatures and degrades into carbon dioxide and water too.
Accelerator 100+ is offering mentoring and funding support to start-ups working on sustainable innovation.