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Enzyme Molecular

What happens when biology meets cloud computing and AI?

They’re naturally derived, low in carbon and with almost limitless, untapped potential. We believe exploring enzymes will help our home care products deliver on their sustainability goals.

A new partnership between Unilever and industry-leading Protein Design Company™ Arzeda is exploring the potential of some of the most incredible ingredients in nature (and in our very own cleaning products). We’re talking about enzymes. And unlocking their power could provide exciting possibilities for products and the planet.

Enzymes are a type of protein found within cells and, while minuscule, they play a huge part in everyday life. Our bodies are full of them. They enable chemical reactions that help with everything from breathing to digestion, breaking down toxins and coagulating our blood. In plants, they power photosynthesis. And when it comes to cleaning products, they’ve been a key ingredient for decades thanks to their impressive ability to break down various types of stains.

They’re also low carbon and naturally derived, so they play a key role as we create the next generation of cleaning products to be more effective and kinder to the environment in years to come. To deliver on our Clean Future strategy – which includes eliminating virgin fossil fuels as a feedstock for the chemicals in our home care products, halving their greenhouse gas impacts and making our formulations biodegradable – it’s vital we apply cutting-edge innovation.

Biotech that breaks boundaries

Until now, science has only ever scratched the surface of what enzymes can do. That’s why we’re teaming up with Arzeda for a three-year partnership that will put enzymes under the microscope like never before.

Arzeda uses technology to design, create and manufacture proteins. Together, we’ll be using world-leading digital biology techniques to learn from the vast number of enzymes in nature, and finding out how they could be applied or even reimagined to make an impact on products such as OMO (Persil), Surf and Sunlight. Reducing the amount of ingredients used in our formulas to reduce their impact on the environment, and creating products that work superbly well in cold water, are two sustainability-related areas in which we hope to make progress.

We’ll also be delving into deep learning – a form of artificial intelligence – and physics-based computational protein design to find out whether optimised versions of enzymes could offer unique benefits that would previously have been considered impossible. It means enzymes could play an entirely new role in our products.

“It is believed that only 5% of the enzymes that occur naturally have been identified and fully understood. So when looking for new discoveries it’s a bit like trying to find a needle in a haystack – then you need to take that one key find and optimise it to be as effective as possible in your application,” explains Neil Parry, Head of Biotechnology at Unilever.

“Our partnership with Arzeda means we can tap into their cloud computing technology and unique software tools. This offers incredible opportunities to explore the widest possible combinations in enzyme makeup and thereby improve the chances of finding a new enzyme with differentiated benefits and performance. This match of machine learning and AI with bioscience brings advances in the innovation timeframe to realise ingredients from biotechnology. This could cut the speed it takes us to carry out protein engineering and enzyme optimisation, for example, from years to a matter of days,” Neil adds.

Photo of Arzeda research facilities with logo

An impact beyond our business

The benefits for our home care business are clear. But they go far beyond Unilever. This partnership and the findings it will yield could solve wider consumer, industrial and environmental challenges across multiple sectors with relevant discoveries being made available for commercialisation.

“This partnership is an exciting step forward as we work to transform our cleaning and laundry business to be superior, sustainable and affordable to all,” says Peter ter Kulve, Unilever Home Care President.

“We look forward to working with Arzeda in developing a new generation of ultra-performing cleaning and laundry products with an environmental impact a fraction of the size of current products.”