Unilever outlines new open innovation ‘challenges and wants’

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Unilever is seeking partners to help it cut sugar
Unilever is seeking partners to help it cut sugar

Related tags: Open innovation, Innovation, Sugar substitute

Unilever has added new ‘challenges and wants’ to its open innovation platform, this time seeking help with a stable natural red colour for fruit and dairy, and technologies to reduce sugar in ready to drink teas.

The company said that it had garnered huge interest from its open innovation platform​ since it was set up in March, and collaborative partnerships on new product development has increased from a quarter of its NPD work in 2009 to about 60% today. The online platform led to more than 1,000 submissions with ideas to tackle the first ten challenges Unilever had set, and the company is hoping to find partners with ideas and technical solutions for its latest challenges.

"We've been hugely impressed by the quality, ingenuity and inventiveness of the submissions that we've received since we launched our Open Innovation platform six months ago,"​ said Unilever’s vice president of open innovation Jon Hague.

The latest call adds to other food-related challenges on the platform, which already include a search for salt reduction solutions and for natural food preservation.

Sugar reduction

For sugar reduction in ready to drink (RTD) teas, Unilever said it is already exploring solutions but is interested in new technologies or ideas in sugar replacements, including natural alternatives like stevia; technologies that affect taste and sensory perception; sweetener enhancers; and active packaging.

“Although ready-to-drink teas contain much less sugar than many soft drinks, consumers still like a certain sweetness. This means we have to reduce sugar levels gradually or use sweeteners so that people do not desert our products for higher-sugar alternatives,” ​the company says.

In particular, it is looking for solutions that could reduce sugar by at least 30%, that are stable in UHT beverages at a pH of 3 to 7, and involve no artificial additives.

Natural red colouring

For natural red colour in fruit and dairy, the company said it is looking for a cost-effective, more stable, water-soluble, natural alternative to red colours like carmine – or possibly a stabiliser for carmine. Possible ingredients must be UHT-resistant, allow red colour in products with a pH in the range of 4 and/or 7, and be stable over a ten-month shelf life, among other requirements.

The company says its hunt for partners is part of its goal to double its business while reducing its environmental footprint.

"We have a long track-record of working with external partners to develop new technologies, so we were already very aware of the strength and depth of the innovation talent which exists outside of Unilever,” ​Hague said.

“However this was the first time we have shared our research projects in such an open forum and it's very exciting to have tapped into a new community of inventors who share our passion for sustainable innovation and creating a better future for our consumers and the environment."

Submitted ideas will be assessed by an independent consultancy before reaching Unilever’s open innovation team, the company said. More information on all current challenges on the platform is available here​.

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