Unilever and the University of Nottingham

Unilever and the University of Nottingham


Case study by Unilever

Unilever is one of the world’s leading suppliers of Food, Home and Personal Care products with sales in over 190 countries and reaching 2 billion consumers on any given day. It has 174,000 employees and generated annual sales of €48.4 billion in 2014.

Our portfolio includes Persil, Dove, Knorr, Domestos, Hellmann’s, Lipton, Wall’s ice cream, Marmite, Magnum and Lynx. Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) aims to double the size of the business whilst reducing environmental footprint and increasing positive social impact.

Research and Development has a key role to play in this ambition – through creating and developing innovations to allow Unilever to grow sustainably. In the UK Unilever has two R&D centres. One of these is located at Colworth Park, which provides a home for its global R&D centre for its Refreshment Category and its global Safety and Environmental Assurance Centre. Colworth Park is also a knowledge-rich innovation eco-system where Unilever R&D, entrepreneurs and academics from nearby universities can collaborate. Unilever R&D has a strong heritage of collaboration in research. The need to form external partnerships has become increasingly important over the past years, as Unilever needs the help of others to achieve its ambitious growth targets.

Partnerships with research institutes and universities is formalised within Unilever via a global framework of collaboration, called the ‘Science Grid’. This Science Grid is made up of carefully selected leading academia, chosen for their expertise and capability in fields of science which complement Unilever’s scientific priorities. The local Grid partners to Unilever R&D Colworth Park are the Universities of Nottingham, Cranfield and Cambridge. The Grid connects the partner institutes not only with each other through Unilever Colworth but also Unilever R&D worldwide.

At the University of Nottingham one key partnership lies with the School of Biosciences, where there are a number of research projects in food science; a particular focus being the development of knowledge into the way that foods and drinks interact with our senses during consumption to generate stimuli that are integrated to build our perception and emotional response. This requires a combination of cutting edge tools in e.g. in-vivo Mass Spectrometry and Magnetic Resonance, as well as the latest sensory methodologies to provide insights that will ultimately inform strategies to better meet consumer needs.

A particular attraction of Nottingham is that they actively bring together seamless integration of leading edge capabilities to their partner projects. In this case study, bringing together advanced measurement and sensory stimuli measurement delivered from complex food microstructures has elicited understanding of the sensations that are integrated in the human brain that result in individual difference. This holistic understanding made Nottingham an attractive partner, enabling new insights towards optimisation of products and speed to market through integration beyond what could be achieved by Unilever alone.

For each partnership, there is a framework agreement which covers how the partnership will run: projects, timing, governance etc. Unilever appoints a Relationship Director who works closely with a colleague at the selected University on the day-to-day running of the collaboration. They are overseen by a joint steering committee who set strategy and direction.

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

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