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Future R&D: How Unilever is transforming innovation with Microsoft

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At Unilever, we’re reinventing the fundamentals of research and development (R&D). Learn how our expertise in chemistry and consumer products, alongside Microsoft’s cutting-edge AI and quantum computing, is helping accelerate our innovation.

A Unilever scientist working in a lab, assisted by a robotic arm.
Alberto Prado, Global Head of R&D Digital & Partnerships.
Alberto Prado, Global Head of R&D Digital & Partnerships

Unilever is using Microsoft’s Azure Quantum Elements, a computer system purpose-built to accelerate scientific discovery, to help drive innovation.

From exploring quantum computing to large language models, we’ve identified several key areas of collaboration that have the potential to revolutionise the way we work.

We spoke to Alberto Prado, Unilever’s Global Head of R&D Digital & Partnerships, to find out more.

How are we working with Microsoft?

Datalab, our virtual global laboratory, is the main entry point into our digital R&D work, bringing all our proprietary data and world-class scientific and engineering expertise into one digital space. The system allows our experts to use models, simulations and advanced analytics to enable faster and more efficient research. Using Azure Quantum Elements together with Datalab, we’ll be able to access the results of hundreds of thousands of new simulations in our future modelling.

Recently, we’ve been looking at how to bring generative AI into our suite of capabilities around Datalab. We’ve also begun experimenting with quantum computing. It’s a gamechanger in terms of the speed and amount of data it could allow us to process.

Azure Quantum Elements accelerates scientific discovery by combining advancements in high-performance computing, AI and, in the future, quantum computing. This allows scientists to efficiently analyse huge numbers of molecules and identify promising chemical combinations. Our work with Unilever combines our computing with the scale and R&D excellence of Unilever to create some really exciting possibilities.

Zulfi Alam, Corporate Vice President, Azure Quantum at Microsoft
Where do we see Azure Quantum Elements adding the most benefit for our business?

Azure Quantum Elements allows us to do things faster and better. Using a simulation to predict what might happen based on the chemistry of the molecules, we can now test them without needing someone to actively manufacture them. This generates new insights, new innovative thinking and new technology options.

We’re also testing new material discovery. So, if we’re looking at a particular molecule, we can determine if it has a specific performance characteristic. For example, if a molecule doesn’t dissolve in water, we can’t put it in a shampoo or washing powder.

Azure Quantum Elements is also helping our expert team of formulators perfect ingredient ratios for our products at a previously unimaginable speed. Formulations is a complex area of research because it involves lots of different ingredients interacting, which computationally can become very expensive to test.

How do we plan to build on this?

We’re on a transformative journey with Microsoft. Using unique capabilities built through our collaboration, we have the potential to shrink our discovery timelines from years to months or even weeks. Coupled with our vast repository of proprietary data and a century of scientific expertise in personal and household care, this technological leap means our scientists will be able to lead the industry in developing the next generation of consumer goods.

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