How Unilever makes use of AI to innovate your favourite merchandise

This article features an interview with Alberto Prado, Head of R&D Digital and Partnerships at Unilever. Prado will be speaking at the TNW conference taking place in Amsterdam on June 15th and 16th. If you want to catch the event (and say hello to our editorial team!), we have something special for our loyal readers. Use promo code READ-TNW-25 and get 25% off your TNW Conference Business Pass. See you in Amsterdam!

From microbiome-protecting skincare to a vegan, bee-friendly lipstick, Unilever is changing the way it innovates its portfolio products by harnessing the power of AI.

Alberto Prado, Head of Unilever’s R&D Digital and Partnerships, is leading this shift. According to Prado, the use of digital technologies enables the research and development department to innovate “better, faster and more effectively”. And this is where artificial intelligence comes into play.

“It starts with being able to understand the outside world in a much better, more predictive way,” Prado tells TNW. He adds that innovation has become more complex in our fast-moving and rapidly evolving world.

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It’s not just about responding to consumer trends and responding to consumer needs – which are changing faster than ever. It is also about advocating sustainability and responding to supply disruptions caused by the climate crisis and volatile geopolitical environment. Consider, for example, the shortage of sunflower oil after Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“The only way to deal with this complexity and the speed at which things are changing is to use artificial intelligence more extensively,” notes Prado. But how exactly does AI help?

First, artificial intelligence tools accelerate scientific discovery by taking on multiple tasks that previously required tedious work in a physical lab.

Thanks to access to vast data, machine learning and high-performance computing, Unilever’s research and development team has been able to make significant discoveries about human biology and the use of new materials that would otherwise have been unthinkable. For example, the company is on the verge of commercializing plant-based, sustainable palm oil alternatives for use in everyday cleaning and personal care products.

“The ability for us to use experimental data to create virtual models that can simulate parameters — which would normally have happened in the physical lab — speeds up much of our work, but also solves problems that may not have been solvable,” said Prado Remarks.

This method of product design, also known as “in silico”, can not only clarify the interaction of molecular compounds more quickly and effectively, but can also replace animal experiments.

The benefits of this technology have already been incorporated into everyday products such as Dove and Vaseline. Through the AI-powered analysis of 12 terabytes of data, Unilever has explored the microbiome (the over 100 trillion microorganisms that live in and on our bodies) and how to combine it with skin ceramides to create products that treat address skin quality and hydration issues.

Beyond discovery and design, AI is also being used to simulate the manufacturing process, Prado tells TNW. “We need to define the best ways to make a product,” he explains. “For example, this particular formula, which is energy efficient, reduces waste and carbon emissions, and is optimized for entry into the development process at our manufacturing facilities – which can have vastly different configurations and set-ups depending on the market.”

At the same time, artificial intelligence is helping to improve Unilever’s supply chain and response to bottlenecks. It can uncover alternative ingredients or simplify products by reducing the number of components without compromising their quality or effectiveness.

And by streamlining discovery, design, and manufacturing processes with AI-powered tools, the company is also improving operational efficiencies.

“Think of innovation as a triangle,” says Prado. It must be effective, sustainable and cost-effective. But optimizing a product across all three vectors is complex, he explains, which is even more difficult when you add the organizational complexity of a large company.

For Prado, this, coupled with all the changes happening around us, means that embracing AI at a scale that helps organizations stay competitive is critical to effective innovation.

Alberto Prado is one of many tech luminaries speaking at the TNW conference on June 15-16. Use promo code READ-TNW-25 and get 25% off your TNW Conference Business Pass.

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