UNILEVER and The University of Liverpool signed an agreement yesterday that will see the two organisations extend the range of their collaborative research projects.
At a formal signing ceremony involving vice-chancellor Prof Sir Howard Newby and Unilever’s vice president for open innovation Dr Jon Hague, the two organisations pledged to build on 10 years of co-operation. The partners say they want to develop new products that will improve the quality of life for a billion people around the world.
The consumer goods giant, which makes and markets a vast range of brands from Persil to Pot Noodle, also expects the link with the university will help it to achieve its ambition of doubling sales while halving its environmental impact.
The company has set out these goals in its Sustainable Living Plan.
Unilever and the university already have a long-standing research partnership in the area of product and process innovation. Scientists from both organisations collaborate at the university’s £9.6m Centre for Materials Discovery (CMD) to improve the effectiveness and sustainability of Unilever’s household products. This includes newly-developed polymers to replace petrochemicals used in laundry-related detergents. The new polymers can clean clothes as effectively as existing products, but at lower temperatures, thereby reducing the carbon impact of using a washing machine.
Another polymer, used in Lifebuoy soaps sold in Asia, cleans hands to a hygienic standard in 15 seconds. In contrast, it can take two minutes of hand washing to achieve the same hygiene levels with traditional soaps.
Now the plan is to extend the research collaborations into other scientific areas such as bio-composite materials which have the potential to be used in a wide range of products. Unilever is working with the university’s Centre for Genomic Research to improve products that treat bad breath, body odour and dandruff.
The arrangement will help the university achieve its knowledge exchange ambitions. Collaborations with industry can often be crucial to securing funding for research projects.
Dr Simon Longden, head of the university’s business gateway, told The Liverpool Post: “Working collaboratively with industry provides us with academic and commercial challenges and enables us to work on real-world problems, helping to provide UK plc with innovative solutions.
“Working closely with industry players, like Unilever, enables the impact of our research capabilities to be felt and realised, be it in soaps, paint or medicines.
“We are very excited about our strategic relationship with Unilever and look forward to deepening our relationship further.”
The CMD, part of the university’s chemistry department, was funded by a combination of money from the European Regional Development Fund and the North West Development Agency. As well as Unilever, scores of other companies from around the region also use its facilities to test and analyse products.
Dr Longden added: “It addresses the needs of many businesses that find their materials core to business challenges. It applies to a broad range of different industrial sectors.
“We have worked with 70 small and medium-sized firms, anything from chemicals to life sciences, aerospace and the car industry. Products include anything from deodorant sticks, pigments in paints and tissue engineering scaffolding.”
Paul Jenkins, a research director at Unilever’s Port Sunlight plant, said there was huge scope for innovative changes to the group’s products in the coming years. He said: “We are expecting a large amount of our products to be re-invented.”
Speaking at yesterday’s signing ceremony, Prof Newby said: “Our partnership with Unilever has enabled us both to benefit from each others’ expertise and really accelerate innovation. We are delighted to extend our partnership with Unilever – we have an excellent relationship that brings out the best of university-industry partnerships and is testament to the North West’s strong position as a leading hub of science and innovation.”
Dr Hague added: “Working collaboratively with our innovation partners is absolutely critical to helping us achieve our ambition of doubling the size of our business while reducing our environmental impact. The challenges we have set ourselves in the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan are simply too great to tackle alone. That's why this new partnership agreement with the University of Liverpool is so important, because the expertise and knowledge that the university brings to this already long-standing relationship will be crucial to helping us develop new technologies and products which grow our business without increasing our burden on the planet.”
Unilever says the detergent and soap polymers will make an appearance in a wide range of brands around the world over the next 12 months.