The University of Liverpool and Unilever have a long-standing and successful partnership of product and process innovation which has led to strategic investment in the Centre for Materials Discovery (CMD), the High Throughput Formulation Centre (HTFC), and the Micro Bio Refinery (MBR).

This relationship began in 2002, when Professor Andy Cooper supervised Unilever-sponsored research programmes in collaboration with Professor Steve Rannard (then a Unilever employee, but now a member of the University). The success of this collaboration led to the development of the Centre for Materials Discovery (CMD), an ERDF/NWDA funded open-access facility available for use by any academic institution or industry partner – from local SMEs to FTSE 100 companies, and with Unilever acting as an anchor tenant.

Operating in Liverpool’s Knowledge Quarter since 2007, the CMD has not only over-delivered for its users (35 jobs created; £9m regional turnover growth; 80 chemists trained; 33 patents; over £20m external academic funding leveraged) but informed the development of the ‘Liverpool Model’ – an approach to academic-industry collaboration that places great emphasis on specialised space, shared capability and open-access. Through this shared use of peerless facilities, supported by technical staff whose expertise is specifically matched to the equipment base, the CMD has yielded significant benefits: for Unilever it is estimated to have reduced the discovery timeframe by a factor of 5; for the University, citations arising from work carried out in the CMD have increased from 500 to 2,500 per year over a 10 year period.

The success of this programme and the related development of the ‘Liverpool Model’ for engagement have led to further partnerships with Unilever: the High Throughput Formulation Centre (HTFC) and the Micro Bio Refinery (MBR) – all based in the Knowledge Quarter and either linked to or based in the University of Liverpool’s Chemistry department – itself ranked 2nd in the UK in the recent Research Excellence Framework. This joint collaborative capability builds on strong RCUK investment in fundamental materials chemistry in Liverpool (2 successive 5-year EPSRC Programme Grants) and also flagship ERC funding (3 ERC Advanced Investigator Grants).

The latest collaboration is the Materials Innovation Factory (MIF), an 11,600m² facility able to accommodate
300 researchers from any academic and industrial backgrounds. With support from HEFCE’s UKRPIF, the £68m facility responds to a key component of the UK’s current industrial strategy – advanced manufacturing. With a vision to be the world leader in Computer Aided Material Science (CAMS) by 2020, the MIF Directors recognise that future global economic competitiveness will need to be underpinned by the ability to innovate: in new materials, in systems and in technologies applicable to a wide range of manufacturing sectors.

A Partnership Agreement and close geographical proximity – the two organisations sit just 6 miles apart on opposing sides of the Mersey – strengthens the relationship, enabling new research programmes to commence quickly and efficiently. A further key factor to the success of all these projects, and this relationship, is the Liverpool Model – a proven approach to collaborative engagement that prides itself on shared capability, great customer service and, critically, a shared ambition to be world leading in materials chemistry. Through this dynamic and flexible model of engagement, our collaborators can accelerate scientific discovery, combining computer-aided experimentation with automation and robotics to drive a Chemical Revolution.


Published: 27 April 2016