Unilever’s Foods Innovation Centre brings transparency to food system challenges
Unilever opened the doors to its Foods Innovation Centre – called ‘Hive’ – on the campus of Wageningen University in the Netherlands in December 2019, to serve as a literal hive of knowledge and collaboration for the agri-food sector within the Foodvalley ecosystem.
Unilever has invested €85 million in the center, from which it will lead its global innovation strategy for areas like plant-based eating and meat alternatives, crop diversity, sustainable packaging and nutritious tasty foods. Its approach is deliberately collaborative – and even the building design is intended to foster knowledge sharing.
“If you think you can do it alone you are not thinking big enough,” said Hive Site Leader and VP Science and Technology, Manfred Aben. “Collaboration is the starting point of why we are there.”
The company combined three research laboratories to bring together about 500 scientists at the center, to work on developing new food products from the initial recipe stage, to factory production at an on-site pilot plant, to the end consumer. Together with a network of researchers and suppliers – from the very large to the very small – Unilever aims to focus on the world’s biggest food-related challenges, for a fairer, healthier and more sustainable food system.
“There are enormous issues and the food system is broken – and that’s something we can only address in partnerships,” said Wendy van Herpen, Foods & Refreshment, R&D Director Ecosystems.
“That’s a starting point of Foodvalley,” she added. “All these partners have the intention to bundle forces and tackle these problems together. Only then can we transform the worldwide food system into a system that provides enough healthy food for nine billion people in 2050.”
The company actively seeks partners to help reach its broadest sustainability goals, as well as very specific ones, such as looking at protein structures or working out how to grow more sustainable crops.
“We always start with what the problem is we have and then try to find partners who can help solve this,” said van Herpen, adding that they help each other to find the right experts at Wageningen University & Research, as well as further afield.
“There are other ways we collaborate in the Foodvalley ecosystem as well,” said Aben, giving the example of Unilever’s decision to share its equipment at the center with the broader community when it is not in use by the company itself.
“Experts find each other around this equipment and insights are shared,” he said. “That is really crucial. That openness and spontaneity around projects is what makes being in Foodvalley so valuable.”
The building itself was designed with these principles of transparency and collaboration in mind. Built around a glass-roofed central atrium, three-quarters of the ground floor is open to the public, with a product development kitchen and pilot plant clearly visible near the entrance.
“That’s really deliberate,” said Aben, adding that people sometimes ask whether the company is concerned about exposing its intellectual property.
“The benefits of being transparent are much higher than the risks,” he said. “We are not thinking so much about ownership and more about access. If you open the doors literally you bring people in. It’s difficult to put it in numbers but it is very important.”
Linking marketing and research
He says that the building and environment have encouraged more interaction between R&D and marketers, which opens connections between the research side of the company and the business development side. And shared research facilities with Wageningen are already up and running to work on new and existing projects with the university.
“What is not always easy with a university is how we harmonize securing intellectual property across different departments,” said Aben. “Being physically here has helped to build a more transparent and consistent approach.”
The new center has gained an ‘outstanding’ rating from BREEAM, the highest possible sustainability certification, and it also has won two prestigious awards for its design: the Global Design Award for Commercial Projects and the Global Public Award. Energy-neutral, it provides all its own energy via solar panels and a seasonal thermal energy system, the wood is all FSC certified, and 95% of the interior consists of recycled parts from the company’s former R&D facilities.
Source: Foodvalley NL