Unilever in partnership with UK universities: working together in pursuit of sustainable scientific progress

Unilever in partnership with UK universities: working together in pursuit of sustainable scientific progress

Trust and mutual understanding are the foundations of ongoing research relationships aimed at scientific breakthroughs that support sustainable growth.

This case study orginally appeared on page 7 of the State of the Relationship 2014. The report outlines the state of university-business collaboration in the UK, featuring expert views and over forty case studies. Read the full report.

Unilever is one of the world’s leading producers of fast moving consumers goods and includes among its brands household names such as Persil, Domestos, Cif, Dove, Wall’s, Lipton, Knorr and Hellman’s. The company’s products are sold in more than 190 countries and on any given day two billion consumers worldwide use them. Unilever is committed to making sustainable living commonplace and works to develop new ways of doing business that will reduce its environmental impact and increase positive social impact. Only by creating innovative and environmentally friendly new products will the company grow sustainably.

The company’s roots are in Port Sunlight, Wirral, on Merseyside. Originally home to the company’s first purpose built research centre, Port Sunlight is still the site of one of Unilever’s largest research and development centres employing more than 750 scientists. Unilever R&D has always collaborated with university departments across the UK. Over recent years the need to form external partnerships has become increasingly strategically important if Unilever is to develop the science and breakthrough technologies necessary to create innovative and sustainable products. It is a challenge too great for the company to tackle alone.

Partnerships with academic institutes and universities has now been formalised in what is called the Science Grid - a network of carefully selected leading academic centres around each of our six global strategic sites to form an innovation ecosystem. Universities and institutes are chosen for their expertise and capability in fields of science which complement Unilever’s scientific priorities.

In the north west of England, R&D Port Sunlight has signed partnership agreements with the Universities of Liverpool and Manchester and the STFC Hartree Centre for high performance computing at Daresbury. The Grid connects the partner institutes not only with each other and Unilever Port Sunlight but also Unilever R&D worldwide.

At the University of Liverpool, our links are built around shared capability and facilities. Unilever is a partner at the Centre for Materials Discovery where it has its own lab and office space; it is a collaborator at the Ultra-Mixing and Processing Facility; and a funding partner, with the HEFCE, at the Materials Innovation Factory. In August 2013 the University and Unilever announced a new three-year partnership to create a centre of excellence in the identification of sustainablysourced ingredients. Part funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, this project is expected to deliver the next generation of interesting surfactants and polymers, bringing environmental benefits to home and personal care products.

Meanwhile, research projects between Unilever and Manchester University cover all four of its faculties in areas of sustainable consumption, process engineering, biophysics and systems biology, as well as aspects of inflammation, toxicology and hair biology.

Each partnership is supported by a framework agreement on projects, timing, governance etc. Unilever appoints a Relationship Director who works closely with a colleague at the university on the day-to-day running of the collaboration. They are overseen by a joint steering committee who set strategy and direction.

A collective willingness to make the partnership work is cited as key to success. Both organisations must benefit from the collaboration and share a clear vision on what the partnership can bring each other. From this comes trust and mutual understanding. 

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