Unilever’s Open Innovation initiatives as a catalyst

Unilever’s Open Innovation initiatives act as catalyst for new supply chains

Its ‘agent provocateur’ talks about his role as a catalyst in linking  entrepreneurial academics, SMEs and intermediaries to form eco-systems and tap into public funds to become the supply chains that will deliver innovations to Unilever.

Who better to head up your corporate Open Innovation endeavours than a man with the broadest of smiles, irrepressible enthusiasm and a string of patents to his name? Many Corporates no longer fund blue sky research but only development, opines Stephen Barnwell, Unilever’s European Open Innovation Manager. He works only on projects where the Technology Strategy Board is offering grants, competitions or other sources of funding – Unilever puts in only staff time.

His job, he says, is about three things: new supply chains, new supply chains and new supply chains. He seeks to put together eco-systems that will make use of innovations that will deliver the benefits of new products, processes, services or business models to one or more of the many areas that are of interest to Unilever.

He is forever looking for entrepreneurs – of which, he says there are too few. His search starts with universities, where he is looking for entrepreneurial academics with IP that could benefit some part of Unilever, and that can show evidence of being scaleable – among whom he names Liverpool, Manchester, Bangor, Sheffield and Warwick’s Advanced Manufacturing Catapult.

If Technology Transfer Offices are too greedy or too inflexible (and he names some) to accept that Unilever needs to own 100% of the IP in its areas of interest, then if we are probably the best opportunity for the development of that IP and we turn it down, he says, it may possibly never be taken up, and its value will fall away – even to zero.

And he is forever looking for SMEs with similar new concepts or interests and able to take on and develop IP from academia. Once the TSB funding has been won, it can be leveraged with tax breaks in the SME.

The third leg in the eco-system is the intermediary – who will adopt and use the new technology in order to deliver product to Unilever – often one of the partners (he always seeks to work with corporates partners in other sectors, such as Siemens, Akzo Nobel, BAe, Croda, Syngenta and IBM).

Among his fifteen or so current projects (all if possible within a stone’s throw of Port Sunlight) are several in 3D printing – for fabricating components or local variations of them; and about larger sizes, different materials, and more complex structures. Another is in raw materials, for example a new kind of millet for Unilever’s bread business in India; another is in regional distribution (from local suppliers and to local retailers); and one is in super-computing.

While startups tend to focus on IT (many of them with apps and applications on the internet), Unilever has found a way of becoming the engine of technology development on an altogether different scale.

John Whatmore                                                             Copyright Feb 2014

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