The power of more
A leading example of scientific collaboration, the Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics (UCMI), is revolutionising the way scientists work.
Set up in 2001, the UCMI is the result of a partnership between Unilever and the Cambridge University department of chemistry. It is now widely acknowledged as a model for how academia and business can work together more closely to bring benefits for everyone around the world.
The centre’s fundamental aim is close to Unilever’s heart: that is, to harness the rapidly expanding universe of scientific know-how to bring real vitality benefits to people around the world. To achieve this, its core expertise is in the cutting-edge field of informatics.
"In the future, major advancements in science will depend on our ability to handle masses of information from very diverse sources,” says Professor Robert Glen who, as Unilever professor of molecular science informatics, heads the centre. "Informatics, the name we give this process, is enabling us to access and work with much more information of much greater complexity than was imaginable even five years ago."
Leading the world
Under Professor Glen’s leadership, the centre has achieved international recognition.
To date, the UCMI has filed no fewer than nine patents. And in addition to running training courses for people from Unilever and elsewhere, the centre has been responsible for over 170 publications in four years. Visiting lecturers have come from as far afield as Japan and the US.
Backed by an investment from Unilever totalling nearly £16m, the UCMI is housed in a purpose-built, state-of-the-art building next to the University's chemistry department. Its work covers three ground-breaking areas:
- The interface between chemistry and biology
- Molecular databases
- Synthesis and tools for chemistry
The studies relate to a range of topics from treating disease to environmental sustainability. Projects include everything from creating more efficient deodorants to addressing nutritional deficiency.
The benefits for nutrition
The study of proteins provides an example of how Unilever products can benefit from the centre’s efforts. After receiving a €2 million grant from the EU, the UCMI is studying the complexities for drying and rehydrating on the stability of proteins.
Protein is a key nutritional constituent of food. So understanding interactions between different types of proteins is important from a nutritional point of view. Many of Unilever’s food products are either dehydrated or frozen. Using natural materials, the aim is to improve the protection of proteins during these processes, leading to better taste and nutrition.
The benefits for hygiene & personal care
Polymers are another area of study that can yield exciting potential benefits for our business. Polymers are used extensively in our home and personal care products: for example, in laundry products to help give softness, and in hair care products to improve conditioning and silkiness.
Understanding better how the different polymers interact with each other within the product or act on the surface to which they are applied allows us to keep improving the performance of our products. Because Unilever is always looking to reduce the environmental impact of its products, UCMI is also working closely with Unilever's specialists on the development of new polymers that are more biodegradable.
As well as receiving core funding from Unilever, the centre is sponsored by:
- The research councils (EPSRC, DTI, BBSRC, NERC)
- Large companies: GSK, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Boehringer Ingelheim, Merck
- Software companies: Tripos, MOE, MDLi, Daylight
- Biotechnology companies: Arrow, Cyprotex