Here’s how Unilever uses AI to innovate your favorite products

This article features an interview with Alberto Prado, Head of R&D Digital and Partnerships at Unilever. Prado will speak at the TNW Conference, which will take place on 15 and 16 June in Amsterdam. If you’d like to join the event (and say hello to our editors!), we’ve got something special for our loyal readers. Use the promotional code READ-TNW-25 and receive a 25% discount on your business pass for TNW Conference. See you in Amsterdam!

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

Alberto Prado, Head of R&D Digital and Partnerships at Unilever, is leading this transformation. According to Prado, the use of 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 outside 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.

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It’s not just about responding to consumer trends and meeting consumer needs, which are changing faster than ever before. It is also about embracing sustainability and responding to supply disruptions caused by the climate crisis and the unstable geopolitical environment. For example, consider the shortage of sunflower oil after the war of Russia in Ukraine.

“The only way to deal with that complexity and the speed at which things change is to make greater use of artificial intelligence,” notes Prado. But how exactly does AI help?

First, artificial intelligence tools accelerate scientific discoveries by taking on multiple tasks that previously required labor-intensive work in a physical lab.

Access to large-scale data, machine learning and high-performance computing has enabled Unilever’s R&D team to make important discoveries about human biology and new material uses that would otherwise have been unthinkable. For example, the company is close to marketing plant-based, sustainable palm oil alternatives for use in daily 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 been done in the physical lab – speeds up much of our work, but also solves problems that may not have been solvable,” says Prado. notes.

This product design method, also referred to as ‘in-silico’, can not only provide faster and more effective insight into the interaction of molecular compounds, but also replace animal testing.

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

In addition to discovery and design, AI is also used to simulate the manufacturing process, Prado tells TNW. “We need to define the best ways to manufacture a product,” he explains. “That specific formula, for example, which is energy efficient, reduces waste and carbon emissions, and is optimized to enter the development process in our factories – which can have very different configurations and settings depending on the market.”

At the same time, artificial intelligence helps improve Unilever’s supply chain and response to shortages. It can discover alternative ingredients or simplify products by reducing the number of components without affecting their quality or effectiveness.

And by optimizing the discovery, design and production processes with AI-powered tools, the company is also improving its operational efficiency.

“Think of innovation as a triangle,” says Prado. It must be impactful, sustainable and cost-effective. But optimizing a product for all three vectors is complex, he explains, which is even more challenging when the organizational complexity of a large company is added to the mix.

For Prado, this means, coupled with all the changes happening around us, that to innovate effectively, it is critical to deploy AI at a scale that helps companies stay competitive.

Alberto Prado is one of many tech stars speaking at the TNW conference on June 15-16. Use the promotional code READ-TNW-25 and receive a 25% discount on your business pass for TNW Conference.