Unilever’s Neil Parry on this year’s partnership with Nouryon for Imagine Chemistry

1. Can you tell us about your role in Unilever?

I am the R&D director for bio-technology and bio-sourcing, which is looking at how biology and biological materials can be used to realize the bio-based and renewables agenda we are moving towards. We’ve been working in this space for a while for the different categories to support the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan ambitions.


2. Unilever already works with Nouryon as a customer. How would you describe this existing relationship and how would it translate into this new partnership for Imagine Chemistry?

My team hasn’t had a lot to do with Nouryon and AkzoNobel in the past, because our companies’ relationship has focused on direct business opportunities - technologies that are ready now and ones that are being evaluated. What we are doing through Imagine Chemistry is more looking at what is possible; that opens up questions and opportunities around science and technology, which is why we are heavily involved here.

3. Why did you choose to partner with Nouryon for Imagine Chemistry?

We are both members of the bio-based industry’s consortium in Europe, trying to understand new bio economy value chains. Of all the discussions we’ve had so far with the different groups in the consortium, Nouryon have been very open to looking at bio-based alternatives, not only as drop-in replacements but also looking at how we can use bio-based materials for superior functionality and new benefits. That’s why we are particularly interested – we know that bio-based is important to Nouryon too.

4. How did the idea for the partnership for Imagine Chemistry come about?

During a science and technology meeting between the two groups we were working to better understand what we can do together. (Nouryon CTO) Peter Nieuwenhuizen asked me if we would like to become involved in this program, saying it would be the first time they would involve an end-user and would give focus to the project. Given our generic interest in surfactants, looking for opportunities in the bio-based surfactant arena together is a perfect match.

5. What exactly will the partnership involve? What is the role of Unilever and its team?

The role of Unilever is to provide guidance regarding the functional bio-based surfactants we are looking for. We also have a whole range of supportive knowledge and know-how, especially with our new materials innovation factory. For new leads that come in through Imagine Chemistry the idea is to test and evaluate them for application in Unilever interest areas. The partnership will be open and flexible to determine how we then generate business opportunity from those leads.

6. What does Unilever bring to Imagine Chemistry?

Unilever brings a large amount of in-depth knowledge on formulation application and bringing bio surfactants in new formulations to drive consumer benefits and therefore business cases. Unilever can translate new ingredients into new products.

Our new materials innovation factory aims to screen and evaluate technologies more effectively - to give a yes/no interest in new materials. We bring the power of that facility to the table, providing an opportunity for new entities working with Nouryon in this space to quickly work out the application benefit of their materials for consumer products.

7. How does Unilever approach innovation currently? Do you think participating in Imagine Chemistry may change that?

We already work with a range of academics, small and medium enterprises, and corporates to explore and develop new technologies for new benefits. Imagine Chemistry will enable us to look at how innovation can be shared between partners to find new opportunities we wouldn’t normally have access to. Nouryon can expand the ingredient palette through Imagine Chemistry and Unilever is there as a supply chain partner to take these ingredients to the market place. It’s a different way of working with suppliers to address gaps in innovation.

8. What does it mean to you to be part of this?

Exploring new science and technology opportunities across a range of partners and supply chains is an exciting way of accessing innovation. I feel that multi-partner collaborations are needed to accelerate innovation in bio-based materials.

9. Have you been part of another innovation initiative like this before?

I think it’s unique to involve multiple partners in the supply chain, sharing the early stages of innovation in a new format like this. It enables a lot of transparency very early on new technologies. If an end-user like Unilever looks at these technologies and recognizes challenges then they can be raised at an early stage to manage expectations.

10. There is a Unilever award. Will there be one winner or would you be open to finding a route to market for multiple viable ideas?

I think it would be a lovely position to have multiple options to look at. We obviously won’t be able to take a lot of technologies through to commercialization at the same time, and depending on where their application could be, there’s different timeframes involved in terms of readiness in the market, brand readiness, and so on. At this stage it’s about exploring the potential of new materials and then using the Unilever input to define what the business opportunity is.

11. What is your dream scenario? What does Unilever hope to get out of this?

An ideal outcome of this would be to see what the state-of-the-art is out there in bio-based surfactants, and if we find new materials, establish superior performance characteristics that can be translated into consumer benefits. Down the line I can imagine Unilever and Nouryon working together to bring this new material to market.

Sound interesting? Join us then!

Imagine Chemistry 2019 is open for submissions from January 8th to March 8th, with the finals event taking place in late May in Deventer, the Netherlands. If you think you have a solution that can help us make the chemicals industry more sustainable, join our Challenge!