Unilever cranks up open innovation activities

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

Next generation mayonaise? Unilever seeks future food solutions
Next generation mayonaise? Unilever seeks future food solutions

Related tags Open innovation Taste Food preservation Food

Unilever is looking for new ideas to help it reduce the sodium levels in its food products by a further 15 to 20% without compromising taste - just one ‘want’ on its newly launched open innovation platform.

Cranking up its innovation activities, the Anglo-Dutch group said it is seeking technical solutions to various research projects it is working on and is posting its particular needs on the new site​.

While Unilever has a long track-record of partnering to develop products, it is the first time that its research projects have been shared so publicly in an open forum, said the food and personal care company.

Possible approaches to salt reduction might include “salt alternatives, technologies that address sensory and taste perception by addressing salt receptors on the tongue, or tools and devises to help educate consumers about salt levels,”​ said the firm, adding that it does not want not methods that involve artificial additives or e-numbers or currently available blends of potassium salts.

Unilever’s declaration of its ‘wants’ in this way mimics the G-WIN innovation platform of US food manufacturer General Mills, where the company also publishes detailed lists of technical problems it is trying to solve.

Bid to double size of business

The Anglo-Dutch group maintains that this open innovation model will help underline its ambition of doubling the size of its business while reducing its environmental impact.

Roger Leech, Unilever open innovation scouting director, told FoodNavigator.com the new platform is the lastest development in its open innovation strategy, which the company kick-started in 2009.

He maintains that the approach allows products to reach market faster than relyling on its own R&D team alone, and cites a fruit tea and low-fat mayonaise as successful NPD arising out of the model.

While fully-formed technolgies are welcome, Leech said that due to the nature of some of the challenges posted on the platform, the company recognises that it will have to undertake additional work with suppliers in relation to bringing submitted solutions to fruition.

The company said in 2011 it had one or more activities under development with more than 500 innovation partners.

Leech said: "We know that the world is full of brilliant people with brilliant ideas, and we are constantly looking for new ways to tap into this potential by working with partners who have a fresh, serious approach to developing exciting new technology.”

A third-party will initially review the projects sent in by potential collaborators.

Food preservation techniques

Unilever’s new platform also reveals that the food manufacturer is seeking new means of achieving broad spectrum anti-microbial stability.

“We'd like to achieve that naturally, with alternatives to synthetic additives - specifically in the aqueous phase of water in oil spreads, oil in water emulsions, and intermediate moisture foods for savoury applications,”​ it said.

The firm said it is waiting to hear from potential partners who are working on new food preservation techniques which are mild and natural and it indicates that developments in the area of plant extracts or other natural ingredients, or new blends of them, which have anti-microbial properties would be of interest.

Unilever also suggests that it would be interested in hearing about traditional biocide products from other industries that are based on natural methods but have not yet been used in food or technologies and processing techniques that have yet to reach the market

It stresses that any such development must meet its basic criteria, and expanding on this, the firm said any new compound must limit the growth of one or more bacillus, lactobacillus, yeast or mould, it must be accepted as 'natural' by consumers and new compounds must be stable.

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