For example, Johnson & Johnson’s JLabs is billed as a life science incubator empowering and enabling innovators to deliver life-enhancing health and wellness solutions. Similarly, P&G Ventures is a small entrepreneurial group within Procter & Gamble that is focused on creating new brands, technologies and business models. Finally, Unilever Ventures is the venture capital and private equity arm of Unilever that invests in young, promising companies, accelerating growth by providing access to Unilever’s global ecosystem, assets and expertise.
All three are personal care industry leaders, but the search for innovation via outside partners isn’t limited to FMCG companies. Nouryon (formerly AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals) has run its Imagine Chemistry competition for the past two years. It’s back this year, searching for new solutions and with new partners—Unilever; seed investor High-Tech Gründerfonds and The Green Chemistry & Commerce Council (GC3).
For the 2019 edition of Imagine Chemistry, Nouryon is looking for solutions in the following five areas:
• Sustainable bio-based surfactants for everyone (in partnership with Unilever): Novel bio-based, non-hazardous surfactants, as well as building blocks for new surfactants;
• Performance-boosting nanoparticles: Small-particle solutions that can make customers’ products more sustainable, durable, and/or functional;
• Sensing in demanding chemical environments: Innovative sensing solutions to help Nouryon’s chemical processes approach 100% resource efficiency;
• Label-free chemistries: Products with ingredients that require no chemical warning labeling that can safely and simultaneously control interface and fluid properties; and
• Pushing the frontiers of chemical innovation: An open challenge for innovative ideas on developing more sustainable chemistry.
Participants can submit their ideas via a dedicated online community and receive expert feedback until March 8, when the submission window closes. In May, 20 finalists will be invited to an intensive three-day event at the company’s RD&I center at Deventer, the Netherlands, where they will work with experts and business leaders to further develop their ideas into a joint value case.
“We are really proud that Unilever is a full partner and presenting an award called “Sustainable Bio-based Surfactants for Everyone,’” explained Peter Nieuwenhuizen, chief technology officer, Nouryon, who added that the winner will have an opportunity to work at Unilever’s fabled Port Sunlight laboratory.
Another interesting category in the Imagine Chemistry competition is “Label-Free Chemistries.”
“We see a lot of demand from the end consumer; they want chemistry that is hazard free with no label warnings,” observed Nieuwenhuizen.
Finally, for the first time, instrumentation startups can enter the competition via the “Sensing in Demanding Chemical Environments” category.
“We want people who have sensor sensing solutions to generate machine learning and AI to help us become more effective in generating more data and less waste,” explained Nieuwenhuizen. “This is an equipment challenge because we need probes that can operate with highly corrosive chemicals.”
The Imagine Chemistry competition primarily gets entries from startups and university spinouts. In 2017, the competition’s inaugural year, Nouryon received more than 200 entries, 20 of which were invited to participate in the finals. Last year, the company received 150 entries, but Nieuwenhuizen noted that the challenge areas were more focused and the quality of the submissions was better.
The competition does more than support startups, it invigorates the Nouryon staff as well. According to company executives, Imagine Chemistry has changed the attitude and behavior of its own R&D team which now sees the value of outside collaboration.
“When we can combine the power of an established company with more than 100 years of experience, with startups that are passionate and have an infectious attitude, it opens our eyes to new opportunities,” noted Peter van Boesschoten, global spokesperson, Nouryon. “Someone on my team, a seasoned veteran, came to me and said, ‘this is the best event I have ever been involved with in my career.’ That’s very powerful.”
In addition to Unilever, High-Tech Gründerfonds and GC3, Imagine Chemistry is also supported by venture capital firm Icos Capital; research and advisory firm Lux Research; UK innovation agency Knowledge Transfer Network; Dutch accelerator StartupDelta; the European Commission’s Enterprise Europe Network, and S/park, the chemical technology- focused open innovation center located at Nouryon’s RD&I site in Deventer.
Last October, Nouryon announced its new name after being acquired by the Carlyle Group and GIC. At the time of the acquisition, new CEO Charles W. Shaver noted, ““Launching our new company is a significant milestone to add to our proud history and we are all looking forward to this exciting new chapter. We are ready to leverage our experience, global presence, and strong company culture to unleash our full potential as an independent company.”
Shaver noted that Nouryon has a great set of businesses, leadership positions across its portfolio, long-term customer partnerships, and a dedication to continuous improvement and innovation—qualities that dovetail with Imagine Chemistry.
“We are excited to offer the Imagine Chemistry event for a third year,” concluded Nieuwenhuizen. “It demonstrates that we remain very committed to innovating and bringing new technology to customer. We changed the name, but not the way we do business.”