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IT Opens the Innovation Process
May 29, 2012
As part of our May Issue in Focus on "Information Technology as a Platform for Sustainable Innovation," guest editor for the month Bart King interviewed Gail Martino, Manager of Emerging and Disruptive Innovation, Open Innovation Group at Unilever, about the recent launch of the company’s open innovation platform.
Open innovation platforms appear to be an emerging trend among companies with major R&D activities. What are the general benefits, and what was Unilever's specific motivation in launching the initiative?
For Unilever, as with most companies engaging in open innovation activities, we’re looking to speed up the innovation process. The goal is to receive more diverse inputs into the entire innovation process. Remarkable technological advances and new access to information make collaboration a smart, if not required, strategy.
More important, Unilever has made significant commitments to grow business while reducing our environmental impact. This last part – the reduction of our environmental impact – is part of our Sustainable Living Plan and is central to our corporate values. We’ve recognized that the planet will not be able to sustain the demands on its resources that will come from a growing population unless people everywhere find new ways to do things. With these ambitious public goals, open innovation is mission critical, as they are not achievable unless our partners and customers work with us moving forward.
You have essentially invited anyone in the world to send ideas to Unilever for potential commercial collaboration. Has this opened the floodgates?
We’ve had more than 300 submissions since the launch of the site in late March from a diverse range of suppliers (new and existing), businesses and individuals. While some are more immediately actionable than others, the ability to secure ideas from all types of organizations and individuals greatly expands the potential impact of this project. We’re finding that good ideas come from anywhere, and we hope they continue to come in at this rate.
What is the review process for submissions? The portal is managed by a third party provider - yet2.com. What role do they play?
By inviting anyone to submit ideas for new designs and technologies, we’ve opened the site to a massive community. To help manage this flood of content we’ve organized the site around key challenges we are already working on, such as safer drinking water, sustainable packaging, washing and others. To help review the submissions, we’ve partnered with Yet2.com, and their role is threefold; they help administer the site, perform initial reviews of the submissions and flag any submissions that may overlap with work being done internally. This last part helps ensure IP is protected for both parties.
To what extent have improved information technologies enabled collaboration of this sort? Is it speeding the R&D process?
The technologies available to us today have certainly enabled the initial success of the platform. The volume of information we receive is extensive, and we wouldn’t be able to review everything on the timeline without a cutting-edge IT team and experienced third-party vendors. Yet the current timeline still depends greatly on the type of information submitted. Yet2 typically takes a couple days to complete due diligence and initially vet the opportunity, but can be a little longer if more information is required. The submissions that pass that initial screen are then submitted to a Unilever team that takes about 14 days to decide whether or not the idea will progress further.
Has the platform led to any successful collaborations yet? If so, can you provide details?
As the vetting process itself takes about three weeks, in the quickest scenarios, we do not have any collaboration yet that we are ready to announce. But there are multiple submissions in the approval process.
The majority of "challenges and wants" posted on the platform involve sustainability issues like packaging, water or nutrition. What's behind this? Are sustainability challenges particularly suited to collaboration, or are you running out of ideas?
The Unilever corporate mission has become well known by our partners and is genuinely supported by our employees. Our Sustainable Living Plan is central to our corporate values, but it’s also part of an ambitious growth model. We clearly understand that one entity, no matter how varied and innovative, is unable to solve some of these global challenges alone.
Unilever R&D involves over 6,000 professionals at six strategic centers and 31 major product development centers. In addition, you say that development activities are currently underway with more than 500 partners at any time. What information technologies and/or systems do you use to organize this work and keep it moving forward?
It’s accurate that any one time we have hundreds of development activities ongoing across the world. We’ve developed a home-grown system that captures this activity and allows us to perform basic analytics that assess metrics such as annual churn, spend, and potential return. While there is third-party software available to track these operations, our in-house IT team has developed systems which track and measure these achievements for us on a global level. In addition, the partnerships that underlie these activities are managed by a network of our employees around the world as part of the open innovation functional capability.
I spoke with Unilever SVP for sustainability Gavin Neath last month about the company's work in trying to develop a methodology for measuring improvements in the livelihoods of stakeholders, particularly small-holder farms. Are there plans for expanding the function of the open innovation platform to address these types of social issues? Or is it likely to remain focused on product development?
While the ten “Challenges and Wants” are not yet all-encompassing, the ten existing categories (Safe drinking water, Fighting viruses, Better packaging, Sustainable washing, Less salt, Better toothpaste, Preserving food naturally, Storing renewable energy, Sustainable showering, Consumer behavior change) serve as a solid starting point. As we review the submissions to date, we will begin to develop a better understanding of the capabilities of the site and the areas in which there are extensive opportunities to improve our existing process. From there, we will continually evaluate opportunities to expand the functionality and offerings of the platform.
Gail Martino, PhD, is Manager, Emerging and Disruptive Innovation, Open Innovation Group at Unilever. In this role, she identifies and manages development of new technologies for Unilever, and is a frequent lecturer and author on open innovation, flexible partnering and crowd-sourcing. Prior to joining Unilever, she worked in research and development at The Gillette Company, and held academic positions prior to that at Colgate University and at the John B. Pierce Laboratory at Yale University School of Medicine.