This article features an interview with Alberto Prado, Head of R&D Digital and Partnerships at Unilever. Prado will be speaking at TNW Conference, which takes place on June 15 & 16 in Amsterdam. If you want to experience the event (and say hi to our editorial team!), we’ve got something special for our loyal readers. Use the promo code READ-TNW-25 and get a 25% discount on your business pass for TNW Conference. See you in Amsterdam!
From microbiome-protecting skincare to a vegan beetle-saving lipstick, Unilever is transforming how 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 transformation. According to Prado, leveraging digital technologies enables the R&D department to innovate “better, faster, and more effectively.” And that’s where artificial intelligence comes in.
“It starts with helping us understand the external world much better and in a much more predictive way,” Prado tells TNW. Innovating in our fast-paced and rapidly evolving world has become more complex, he adds.
It’s not simply about responding to consumer trends and addressing consumer needs — which are changing faster than ever before. It’s also about embracing sustainability and reacting to supply disruptions caused by the climate crisis and the volatile geopolitical environment. For instance, think of the sunflower oil shortage following Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“The only way to deal with that complexity and the speed at which things change is through the more widespread use of artificial intelligence,” Prado notes. But how exactly does AI help?
First off, artificial intelligence tools accelerate scientific discovery by taking on multiple tasks that previously required laborious work in a physical lab.
Thanks to access to large-scale data, machine learning and high-performance computing, Unilever’s R&D team has been able to make significant discoveries about human biology and new material use that would have otherwise been inconceivable. For example, the company is close to commercialising plant-based, sustainable palm oil alternatives for use in everyday cleaning and personal care products.
“The ability for us to leverage experimental data to create virtual models that can simulate parameters — which would normally have happened in the physical lab — is speeding up a lot of our work, but also solving problems that may have not been solvable,” Prado notes.
This product design method, also known as “in-silico,” can not only shed light on the interaction of molecular compounds faster and more effectively, but also replace animal testing.
The benefits of this technology have already gone into everyday products such as Dove and Vaseline. Through AI-powered analysis of 12 terabytes of data, Unilever has researched the microbiome (the 100 trillion+ microorganisms living in and on our body), and discovered how to combine it with skin ceramides for products that address issues in skin quality and hydration.
Beyond discovery and design, AI is also used to simulate the manufacturing process, Prado tells TNW. “We need to define the best ways of manufacturing a product,” he explains. “That particular formula, for example, that is energy efficient, reduces waste, and carbon emissions, and that is optimised to enter the development process in our manufacturing plants — which may have very different configurations and setups, depending on the market.”
At the same time, artificial intelligence helps improve Unilever’s supply chain and reaction to shortages. It can uncover alternative ingredients, or simplify products by reducing the number of components without impacting their quality or effectiveness.
And by optimising the discovery, design, and manufacturing processes with AI-powered tools, the company is also improving its operational efficiency.
“Think of innovation as a triangle,” Prado says. It needs to be impactful, sustainable, and cost-efficient. But optimising a product across all three vectors is complex, he explains, which is even more challenging when a big firm’s organisational complexity is added to the mix.
This, for Prado, coupled with all the changes happening around us means that to innovate effectively, it’s crucial to deploy AI at a scale that will help companies remain competitive.
Alberto Prado is one of many tech luminaries speaking at TNW Conference on June 15-16. Use the promo code READ-TNW-25 and get a 25% discount on your business pass for TNW Conference.
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