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Meet the leader: Dr Vibhav Sanzgiri

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To continue our series of interviews with senior leadership, next up is Dr Vibhav Sanzgiri, Executive Director of R&D at HUL and Global R&D Head of Skin Cleansing. Read further as he talks about how we ensure that our products are thoroughly backed by sound science and innovation.

Dr Vibhav Sanzgiri, Executive Director, R&D, Hindustan Unilever Limited

Dr Vibhav Sanzgiri has a PhD in Microbiology and Molecular Biology and has been Hindustan Unilever's Executive Director of R&D since 2019. In his time at Unilever since 1997, he has held various global and regional roles in Water, Skin Care and Skin Cleansing and has multiple patents and publications to his credit. He has represented Unilever at several National and International Dermatology and Hygiene forums. He is the co-chair of the Science & Technology committee of FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry) and a member of the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) to the Government of India.

Inside Unilever R&D

What is the role and purpose of Unilever’s R&D to drive innovation and growth?

Unilever R&D’s mission is to innovate boldly for people and the planet. We innovate to create products that enhance the lives of billions of our consumers daily. We are pioneers and custodians of disruptive science and technologies which deliver delightful consumer experiences and help build trust and love for our brands. Over the decades, our R&D teams worldwide - including our teams in India - have disrupted categories and invented products that are an inseparable part of our lives – and globally, we have over 20,000 patents as testimony to these achievements. Being the leading voice in FMCG R&D, we are also galvanizing the industry towards establishing sustainability as a cornerstone for responsible business, and we are on a mission to minimize our environmental footprint.

How does the R&D department ensure our products do good, feel good and are good for the planet?

Every Unilever innovation is a product of scientific expertise & rigorous adherence to local and global safety norms and regulations to ensure our products do good, feel good and are good for the planet. Over the years, we have built truly world-class R&D capabilities in biological, physical, chemical, ayurvedic, processing, consumer insights and packaging sciences, including in leading-edge areas like Microbiome, Neurosciences, Bio-based materials, Net-Zero materials, as well as AI and Digital.

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We have global centres of excellence in the form of SEAC (Safety and Environmental Assurance Centre) and our Global Regulatory Affairs and Advocacy team—both of whom are recognised externally (and globally) as Leading-Edge in their work (e.g., advocacy for alternatives to animal testing). All our teams work together to ensure that each of our ingredients, formulations, technologies, and claims are reliable and safe for consumer use while having no detrimental effect on the environment.

Along with internal expertise, we also closely partner with eminent Indian and global academic institutions, government scientific bodies worldwide, and leading raw material and finished goods manufacturers. We continue to push the frontiers of pioneering research and sound scientific methodologies through alliances like these.

How do you identify growth areas for HUL R&D? How does marketing innovation play a role?

A sharp focus on consumer and competitor insights, trends, and sustainability drives our innovation strategy. Our people (across R&D, CMI, Marketing and other functions) spend significant time with consumers to understand their needs, problems, and dreams. We have now embedded digital technologies in our workflows to augment this understanding. Capabilities such as our Agile Innovation Hub & Datalab leverage AI, models and simulations to help us predict consumer trends and identify need gaps in an always-on manner.

We are also building platforms for disruptive big-bet technologies that promise to deliver step-changes in the benefits that consumer goods can provide. For instance, we are the undisputed global leaders in the microbiome/biome-factory space. We hold over 50 patents and publications linked to the pro-lipids technology in leave-on creams, lotions and body washes. These innovations help nurture the microbiome, create ceramides from within, and repair skin barrier from the inside out.

Could you walk us through some of Unilever R&D’s top achievements and the impact realised?

Consumer needs, product love and sustainability, are invariably intertwined in every innovation at Unilever. Some of our recent breakthrough innovations include:

  • The world’s first home care products with formulations using soda-ash based on captured carbon technology.
  • Pioneering non-edible oils-based soaps.
  • Natural Immunity Boosting Tea and Skin Immunity Boosting sanitizers and hand/body-washes.
  • 100% Vegetarian Mayonnaise and Peanut Butter with no compromise on Taste or Nutrition.
  • Reducing the level of sugar in our nutrition drinks portfolio to the lowest among all the products in the market without compromising on taste and improving the nutritional value of billions of servings.
  • We use recycled plastic across all our products, from body washes to detergents. Our sachets for hair care and soap bar wrappers are 100% technically recyclable. We also eliminate plastic completely in cartons of our products such as tea bags, soap bars, and ice cream & frozen desserts.

These are just a few of the innovations we have launched, and all of these are superior products - adopting circular economies, reducing GHG emissions, improving water quality and access, lowering salt & sugar consumption, supporting zero waste initiatives, and improving hygiene standards across the world.

Vibhav Sanzgiri, Executive Director, R&D with his team

How important are the people behind the scenes who work in R&D at Unilever? Talk about what it takes to deliver success.

It sounds cliched, but our people are indeed the driving force behind our enviable achievements. Transformative science and technologies come only from brilliant and creative minds who can put 2 and 2 together to unlock how we bring a product based on an arcane scientific principle into the consumer's lives, or identify a piece of information from one area to solve a seemingly unconnected problem in another.

Over 820 innovators, scientists, engineers, chefs, technologists, consumer experts, psychologists, pharmacists, regulatory experts, and data scientists work every day across our 3 labs in Mumbai, Bengaluru and Gurugram to design superior technologies and technology-led products that consumers love.

Furthermore, in a country where just one in six STEM professionals is a woman, we are also immensely proud of our diverse and 100% gender-balanced team across all work levels. This is not just a statistic, but a testament to our commitment to diversity and inclusivity. We are now driving the agenda strongly toward inclusivity through our Saksham program for persons with disability. Incidentally, our sites are already DEOC (Diversity and equal opportunities centre) Level 2 certified.

Our advocate scientists are some of the most respected experts in their fields and regularly helm leading academic conferences and partnerships globally. HUL's strong focus on developing purpose and leadership skills helps cultivate an owner's mindset amongst its employees. This mindset is critical in ensuring that as a team our collective efforts are synergistic, helping us achieve our goals better and faster.

Vibhav Sanzgiri with team R&D

Personal background & efforts

You joined HUL in 1997. Could you share an anecdote that encapsulates HUL's innovative culture and spirit?

The infectious spirit of curiosity and innovation that permeates the air at our R&D centres has been a constant since my early days here. I recall multiple occasions where ingenious application of science coupled with an acute understanding of consumer needs has resulted in category-defining technologies.

From developing the world's first combination of Vitamin B3 and UVA+UVB sunscreens for our skincare brands, launching the world's first NSD (Detergent) bars, to innovating the world's 1st Immunity boosting tea and sanitisers and many more, Unilever R&D's innovations have not only created categories globally but also transformed people's lives for the better. And this continues to be our driving force even today.

Talk to us about your leadership mantra.

The late Steve Jobs has been my role model, and you will often find me quoting him. I love his Mantra of "Think Different", as it embodies what every scientist should do. My own personal Mantra builds on this. I believe in "Unlocking the Unimagined" and "Impossible is Nothing". I also firmly believe that real growth does not just happen vertically but happens more holistically through diverse experiences, working with diverse people across cultures, building real expertise, and absolute apprenticeship (more than just career mentorship) – all of which play a significant role in preparing leaders for the future.

Vision and Future Goals

What is your vision for Unilever R&D in the coming years?

The next generation of Unilever's R&D is AI/Digital-led, Sustainable, and Biology based. Our focus lies in the exciting areas of Microbiome, Bio-based and Novel materials, and Net Zero technologies. In the coming years, we aim to be pioneers in all these fields, envisioning a future where our innovations reshape the industry while continuing to develop superior, sustainable, and delightful products that consumers love to use.

What advice would you give aspiring leaders looking to drive innovation and growth within their organisations?

To drive innovation and growth, one must develop an unwavering consumer and market focus, strong product love, and a real ‘feel’ for the latest trends and technologies. It's crucial to understand that not all learning can happen sitting behind a computer - one must get their hands dirty and live the consumer's life. This active involvement is key to developing products with deep insights and empathy. Holistic Design thinking is a must, and aspiring leaders should also work towards cultivating an "and" mindset. As an R&D leader, delivering superior value and sustainability is critical – just one isn’t enough.

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