Unilever’s Online Open Innovation Platform

You might remember that in a previous article about the Talking Packaging for Healthcare products, I referred to an interview in Packaging World, where Richard Adams, head of Pack Graphic Design at GlaxoSmithKline, gave the following answer to the question, about what he is looking for from packaging suppliers: “In a word, innovation – innovative materials and packaging solutions to meet the diversification efforts within our company. ……… We simply do not have the time or resources to understand what is available and new”.

Apparently it is a problem which many (multi-national) consumer goods companies are facing. Last week Unilever launched an online open innovation platform, which is intended to be a gateway for collaborations between Unilever’s own R&D specialists and any designer, engineer or whatever to come to innovation breakthroughs.
According to Unilever, a successful solution could change the way billions of products are packaged and make a significant difference to the environment and the lives of its consumers.

Vietnamese woman selling Unilever products

It is well-known that sustainability is a key priority for Unilever and in this light, sustainable packaging is a strategic goal for which the online innovation platform is a perfect tool to uncover new and innovative technical solutions to boost growth while cutting its carbon footprint. But in its drive to reduce the overall environmental impact, Unilever is looking for novel and innovative ways to package its products to reduce their overall weight while simultaneously cutting down on waste.

Unilever states: “We’re open to working with partners who can help with the solutions we’re already considering, or who have an idea we haven’t thought of at all”.

Do you have an idea for better packaging? Go to the Unilever Portal.

But before you do so, I have a warning!
Unilever requests that all information you provide in these initial stages imposes no obligation of confidentiality for Unilever or its affiliate yet2.com (who ever that might be). If your submission passes the screening criteria, all your details will be passed to Unilever for further internal detailed review. Prior to any confidential discussions, you will be asked to sign a separate, further Agreement with Unilever so that any confidential information, that is subsequently shared, is protected.

The keyword here is: subsequently. I have some problems with the condition of the “no obligation of confidentiality for Unilever” in the initial stage. I am not saying that it is tricky, but it might cause problems later, when the screening turns out to be negative for the inventor.

If more packaging and consumer goods companies (the good, the bad and the ugly) are initiating open innovations portals, and that is to be expected, then this situation screams for another portal: Registration of Innovations, where inventors can store (partly open, partly hidden) their inventions and particularly the evolving developments in terms of variations, based on the original invention.

Initial design of a Paneer and Mozzarella packaging

I am well aware that Unilever requires that a submission must have IP protection. But a breach of the original patent isn’t the problem. The problem arises the moment an invention evolves into some variants, new shapes, new applications, which can’t be additionally patented by the original inventor, as it is costing fortunes and in general inventors haven’t fortunes to spend.
And here comes the cockroach! In the world of inventors a cockroach is a company (you might say a copy-cat, but much more sleazy) that steals the idea which is the result of an evolution of an original patent. It then is looking for “openings’ in the original patent to patent the evolution as a new development in its own name. After that, the evolution is not any longer an evolution and property of the original inventor, but fully owned by the cockroach.

We all know numerous examples of this behaviour. The cockroach is just sucking inventor’s blood. Worse even the inventor can almost do nothing. The cockroach’s patents are based on a new shape, a new application, etc., modifications the inventors hasn’t patented. And the inventor isn’t able to protest as he can’t prove that he was the first. No date registration is available to show in court.

A Packaging Innovation Platform, which lets everyone issue his invention for registration, partly open, partly hidden, will safeguard the inventor when some cockroach, after the issue date inside this platform, tries to patent a product registered on this platform. This platform protects its members, the inventors can sue a cockroach, or inform the patent office, based upon information inside this platform. The most important is the issuing date, which will be accepted as fact by any court. We always have Google to prove the correctness of the issuing date.

Prototypes of the Compleat coffee cup made from paperboard

To end this story. Did I insinuate that Unilever is a cockroach? Of course not, as I said, there are the good, the bad and the ugly.

One more point. I know there are fairly similar (commercial) websites as the platform here proposed. They are (in my opinion) all too expensive, too complicated and want to commercialise the invention or new technology. That’s not what I have in mind.
What I have in mind is a platform for the individual inventor or small inventive company. Small member fee, no obligations, no further costs. The commercialisation is best be done by the inventor.

11 responses to “Unilever’s Online Open Innovation Platform

  1. I’m glad to hear that Unliever wants to support the most environmentally-friendly options available, but crowdsourcing innovation and ideas, as you point out, really devalues the industry. It is one thing to crowdsource something for the common good, like National Georgraphic’s mapping of Mongolia (http://exploration.nationalgeographic.com/), but crowdsourcing design – something that has commercial viability and ultimately rewards Unilever – is just greedy. I like your idea of creating a platform to protect inventors that is more accessible than those available now. Until commercial crowdsourcing protects its contributors as much as it does the recipients, it will always be a parasitic relationship.

    • Jennifer, I don’t agree with you. Crowdsourcing or open innovation is a perfect idea. It gives many an inventor the chance to get in contact with a serious company. Nothing to do with greedy. Unilever etc will be for the use of the invention. What I was protesting is the initial stage where no protection is, or might be, available. Furthermore as I stated there are the good, the bad and the ugly. To safeguard the inventor some sort of registration platform is in my opinion a good and not-expensive option, with all the freedom for the inventor.
      I like the idea of Unilever and expect that many companies will follow (again the g+b+u). The approach of Unilever is very different than the attitude of many publishing website, which ask you to contribute articles, of course free-of-charge. If you don’t do it, they just steal them from.

      • Thanks for the clarification, Anton. Sorry I misunderstood your sentiments about the registration of innovations and their evolution thereafter. My dislike of crowdsourcing is due to the fact that those who submit to crowdsourcing sites are rarely selected and therefore do their design/videography/translation/etc for free, which degrades and cheapens the value of those industries and their commercial viability. I suppose however, that the ‘industry’ of inventing has long been one of working for free in hopes of being able to capitalize off of that work later. My apologies for projecting.

      • Sorry, I saw that one word in my previous text is missing. I intended to say, that “Unilever etc will be PAYING for the use of the invention. The initial non-confirmation I am a bit worried about, particularly in evolutions of the original patent, which are not covered. There is where the cockroach comes in, and often successfully.
        I fully agree with you about the crowdsourcing sites, particularly in relation to writing. I don’t understand that people are willing to join such a website. For (packaging) inventions the situation is completely different. Their is no objection to create a marketplace (platform) between company and inventor, as long as the company plays according to the rules. Companies as Unilever, Nestlé etc will, under normal circumstances, play according to the rules. A platform can be a perfect entry, for an inventor, into a company. No problem with that. The problem is, that the platform of Unilever will set the bad-and-the-ugly in motion to copy the idea. And there is the danger. That’s why my idea was to create a Registration Platform for Inventors, to safeguard their position.

      • Hello Anton,

        your articles is excellent, wonderful news about the packaging.

        Can you give me your email ID, I need to talk to you about the Injection packaging new trends, issues and views.

        my email Id is “varakumar_aurobindo@yahoo.co.in”

        I look forward for your reply to my email

        Best Regards
        Vara Kumar

  2. Isn’t this really close to getting a patent issued? Crowd sourcing works, as you note, when all play by the rules. As a packaging engineer for several years, I have developed patentable ideas. The down side, as has been explained to me, is that the company isn’t in the packaging business. So, my ideas have been used by the company I developed for, but, could be patented by someone else.
    This scenario can play out in the packaging world, too. Develop for one and patent by an other. The end result is the brain child gets none.
    Your idea of a registered site or registration is good, but, fair pay generates a desire to protect one’s investment. Hopefully, your registration process will add the factor of “decent” pay when the idea is used.

    • Yes, it is close to a patent application, however it is merely of interest to additional idea applications, additional shapes etc which haven’t been mentioned in the original patent and are too costly to patent again. Sorry I do not understand your statement: “… the company isn’t in the packaging business”. This has nothing to do with applying for a patent.

  3. Totally agree with you Anton! Your article well describe the reluctancy of the many designers and inventors vs “open innovation” platform and which are fed-up to “inspiring” for free the big players! The direct human contacts and connections cannot be substitute by “anonymous ” web based platform which are just trying to simplify packaging complexity problems, asking to have “free” ideas and solutions by “potential” unknown partners… from a business point of view, I frankly think that if you really have a good idea or solution, I am sure that also you will never use this kind of platform to promote it!

  4. Pingback: Heineken’s Ideas Brewery | Best In Packaging·

    • Open innovation is all nice and dandy as long as companies are engaging in a fair play to the inventor. Unfortunately that’s not always (read often) the case. Ethical behaviour isn’t high on the list execution list of most companies.

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