Unilever (UNA), the world’s second- biggest consumer-products maker, unveiled a website to gather and assess ideas from outside the company as it looks to bolster sales from new products and improve environmental practices.
The site will focus on sustainable business ideas, such as technologies to lower the cost of providing safe drinking water, Roger Leech, Unilever’s open innovation scouting director, said in a March 15 interview. Unilever will solicit ideas from universities, engineering and design companies, and environmental groups around the world, he said.
By opening up the process to outsiders, Unilever follows rivals such as Procter & Gamble Co. (PG), which now seeks to generate $3 billion in sales annually from products developed jointly. The program is part of Unilever Chief Executive Officer Paul Polman’s 2010 pledge to cut the environmental footprint of its products by 50 percent.
“We were conscious that we didn’t disclose those key areas of opportunity we wanted to engage with in an open manner,” Leech said in the interview. “It seemed like a timely opportunity to stamp those areas with a Unilever identification and be open with them.”
Since Unilever established a so-called open innovation unit to work with outside partners in 2009, the share of external ideas that are adopted by the company’s business units has increased from 25 percent to 60 percent, Leech said. Before that, the company worked informally with universities in the U.K. and the Netherlands.
Other areas where London and Rotterdam-based Unilever will look for outside inspiration include laundry detergents that work at lower temperatures and use less water, lower-sodium foods, and ingredients for cleaning products that kill viruses without using bleaches, strong acids or alcohols. Last year the company collaborated with more than 500 partners.
For example, the Pureit water purifier involved India’s National Institute of Design and its National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, Tata Group’s Tata Elxsi engineering subsidiary and Ernst & Young LLP. The device is sold in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
Yet2.com, a closely-held intellectual property consultancy in Boston, will help Unilever judge ideas from outside the company, Leech said. He declined to specify any goals for the program. Polman has said that more than 30 percent of the company’s sales comes from products introduced in the past two years. P&G has said that more than 50 percent of its innovation is now sourced externally.
Unilever has also said all agricultural raw materials will be produced in a sustainable manner by 2020, and it will shift to buying only sustainable palm oil by 2015. Unilever is one of the world’s largest buyers of palm oil, used in margarine, ice cream and soap.
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