At a recent Unilever round table to discuss the importance of the microbiome, Samantha Samaras, Beauty & Wellbeing and Personal Care R&D Head of Science and Technology, spoke to Johanna Hamilton AMBCS about the company ethos, ‘better business, better world, better you’ – and how AI is driving discovery, innovation and even the supply chain.

Globally recognised sustainability leader

Last month, Unilever was named the corporate sustainability leader in the GlobeScan SustainAbility Leaders Survey – for the ELEVENTH year running. The survey asks 718 sustainability experts from 73 countries working across academia, the corporate sector, governments, media and NGOs, what their top three companies were for showing the greatest commitment to integrating sustainability into their business strategies. Unilever came top amid stiff competition from fellow leaders Patagonia, IKEA, Natura & Co, Microsoft, Interface, Ørsted, Tesla, Danone and Google.

Unilever CEO Alan Jope said: “Topping the GlobeScan list for the 11th year gives everyone at Unilever a great sense of pride, and encourages us to continue building a responsible business, translating leadership in sustainability to superior financial performance.”

So, what is the IT story behind the microbiome and the environmental drive?

Samaras begins: ‘Unilever has a huge sustainability agenda. The commitments that we've made, range from 2023 to 2039. And all the changes require innovation in order for us to make them happen.

‘We have a very exciting partnership with Genomatica where we are looking at how to create synthetic alternatives to palm kernel oil from a biopharma / biotech point of view. As we grow our business, it is not viable to be solely dependent on a small number of feedstocks. Using a fermentation process, the plant-based alternative powered by biotech creates the same ingredient needed to make surfactants, which we will use within the home and beauty and personal care industries.

'Instead of doing less harm, we need to do more good. We need to invest in regenerative agriculture which can deliver positive outcomes in terms of nourishing the soil, increasing biodiversity, and improving water quality.’

How do you physically change the chemicals/materials you use?

Digital technology has unlocked our ability not only to understand potential problems but also to find more solutions.

‘If you look at the microbiome as an example, 15 years ago you could barely sequence genes from two bugs. My entire PhD was cloning and expressing two genes from the parasite that causes malaria. An entire four-year PhD. Now, if I go over to the Centre for Genome Research in Liverpool – I can sequence four different strains of malaria in a day. The use of technology is accelerating our understanding.

‘Biology is so complex and the ability to map the whole microbiome and not just map who's there but the community analysis. That’s so powerful – to be able to explore if you took out one member of the community what it would do. Does the community fall apart?’

Has the use of AI or machine learning changed your research?

‘Absolutely. AI helps us to understand complex systems. I'll give you an example, when we do an experiment, we look at putting a chemical compound into a cell and look at what happens next. We look at the top ten genes that go up and the top ten genes that go down. But usually, it says gene 337 that changes and causes another to change, then another, then another…

'The human brain cannot ever compute those infinitesimal changes that AI can. It allows us to go in and identify that gene and then we learn something new that we didn't know before about acne or dandruff or dry skin. We’ve been looking at this for 90 years and we are learning new things all the time!

‘As well as mapping biological factors such as the microbiome, machine learning is also used in the production of new products – so it’s not just analysing what is there, it’s predicting what could be. It is presenting multiple futures enabling researchers to experiment with formulations without picking up a test tube.’

Technology has changed your understanding of the body – what about the formulations?

‘Machine learning has helped us move into hypotheses that we could never have imagined. What's so exciting about the last, probably five years is how technology is really coming into its own in the biology space. We sell soap bars and shampoos on a massive scale, so we make soaps and shampoos in vats as big as this room. But it’s not just about the ingredients we put in, it’s how we do it. Machine learning has helped us refine the process engineering – so that covers the speed of the stir, the length of time, the temperature...

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‘We have a Dove body wash [currently only available in the US] that lets you click a concentrated refill onto our reusable bottle, squeeze it in, add water and shake. The physics of how to set that structure up is very complex and we figured out the process to take it from vat size to get the same result from a person shaking it.

‘Now we use the same AI in the complex biology space to understand how to scale a lotion made in a tiny test tube up to a vat as big as this room. The physics has helped us move to a different scale, and it’s also unlocked efficiencies – so we could make it say, three times, six times more concentrated.

‘The physics of surfactants is an old science. It's been around forever, but by using AI and machine learning again, we're getting new hypothesis in that area.’

What is the most valuable use of AI in your industry?

‘We use AI to do one of two things – either to do what we already know faster and better, or we use it to learn things we couldn’t know before. They are the two big unlocks that technology has brought us. There’s also the idea that AI gives you a different view of alternate futures. As an expert, you're often ‘boxed in’ by your knowledge. You can only see through a certain lens at a certain time. But with AI, you’re suddenly given all the lenses.

‘From a supply chain point of view, AI can give us different views on how to make products more efficiently. We have nano factories and very complex supply chains across 190 countries in the world – machine learning is changing how we make our products but also how we conserve resources through transportation and distribution.’

Unilever obviously makes products that are ‘good for you’ but is it also good for the planet?

‘We work on this triangle – good for people, good for the planet, good for value. Every person in the world lives someplace different in that triangle so we need to offer a range of products that meet these different needs.

‘Sadly, one of the leading causes of death in kids in India is diarrhoea. Kids don’t want to wash their hands after going to the toilet – that’s kids everywhere – and when they do, they never wash their hands for the full 30 seconds, which is the WHO recommended time. So, they wash their hands on average for about 11 seconds.

‘We've created technology used in our soap bars – as well as in our other antibacterial soaps – to kill germs within 10 seconds. We also have data that shows that when we go into an area and we do behaviour change programmes, it has a significant health impact on the people in their real life.’

So, Unilever isn’t just about looking good?

‘It's not just a bar of soap or shampoo, it’s about giving people confidence and a feeling of wellbeing.

‘People don't buy Unilever, they buy our brands – and we have 13 billion Euro brands and data shows brands that have a point of view or a purpose, and importantly take action to drive positive change, grow faster. For example, Dove launched a campaign recently called #ReverseSelfie which showed that girls as young as 12 or 13 are already using filters on social media to make themselves look different.

‘And in the US, Dove is also a founding member of The CROWN Coalition which advocated for the passing of the CROWN Act. The CROWN Act is a law which demands protection against race-based hair discrimination in the workplace and in schools. Dove championed the CROWN Act and now 17 states in the US have ratified it into law. So, Dove has a point of view, and importantly, is taking action to drive positive change, which grows its brand power driving market share, and, in turn, growth.

‘At Unilever, our ambition is to be the global leader in sustainable business, and we believe that the winning businesses of tomorrow will be those which anticipate and respond to the changes and challenges shaping people’s lives.’