Emerging innovations: Neal Matheson, Unilever

Each week we ask chief technology officers and other high-profile tech decision-makers three questions.

Image caption Unilever CTO Neal Matheson

Answering today is Neal Matheson, chief technology officer of multi-national packaged goods giant Unilever.

Unilever products are sold in 170 countries, and the UK-based company employs over 163,000 people. In 2009, Unilever recorded revenues of 39.8bn euros ($52.3bn; £33.9bn). It produces some of the best-known household brands in the world including Knorr, Lipton, Persil and Dove.

What's your biggest technology problem right now?

When I first started to think about this I immediately gravitated to the kind of things that we always think about in this industry, like how can you eliminate wrinkles, or how can you grow hair, or how can you create an ice cream that has no calories but tastes great.

As I thought further, really the single biggest issue for me personally is that there have been tons of new technologies developed in other industries over the past five, 10, even 20 years.

In FMCG [Fast Moving Consumer Goods] we haven't really leveraged this very well. But if I think about it, I honestly believe we can improve the quality of life for 100% of our consumers, leveraging technology that exists today.

But we have to connect the dots differently, we have to think differently about it. We've already demonstrated that conventional approaches haven't really increased our innovation rate.

We need the challenge - what can we do to be first in this space, so that we can lead the market to a whole set of new dynamics.

It really does require a different kind of thinking. What is the role of diagnostics, are there enabling technologies that would allow our products to be much more effective? Things that we don't always think about, but that exist in today's world.

What's the next big tech thing in your industry?

For me, we will see some of the things I've already talked about and I think that we will see some specific innovations coming.

If you look at what's happening today, growth is primarily in emerging markets, as we all know, and our competitors are racing in there to create labs.

We've been there for years, we have many labs already in Asia, about 40% of our people are there, in Latin America and Africa. So the challenge for us is how can we lead innovation from emerging markets.

If you think about it in our industry, most of the innovations come from developed markets and are adapted for emerging markets, and I think we're going to flip that on its head, and we're going to innovate for emerging markets and adapt it for developed markets.

We have a real advantage there, because of our history, and so it really is up to us to grab this trend.

What's the biggest technology mistake you've ever made - either at work or in your own life?

We don't acknowledge those you know! I've actually been fortunate enough, I haven't had any real giants, touch wood.

I think if you've been around doing this job as long as I have, we all have our funny stories.

I can still remember the mechanical spray for anti-perspirant that we developed, that was really kind of a silly project but it just never died. This was when I was working for P&G.

We had a review with the chief executive officer. He was playing with one of the prototypes and he couldn't make it work, he finally just pressed on something and a stream of cream flew out of the actuator and landed nicely in the hair of the executive vice president who was responsible for anti-perspirants. The project died the next morning.

Or another guy who created a wonderful product for haircare, by putting particles in it to make it look much thicker and fuller. It was amazing, everyone looked great, but you could not comb these things out, just couldn't. It took four days before we could get it out of people's hair. That project died pretty quickly.

If I think about what affected me most, especially when I was young and optimistic, it was when I was taking on high value high risk projects.

The first thing you always do is de-risk them. You try to figure out those things that are really going to increase the probability of success. Usually that's one or two inventions, that's typically what would happen in a major innovation project.

I've had a number, three or four, that required five inventions. I have to say I failed miserably on all of them, although on two of them I already had four, and that's really frustrating.

Today I won't do that any more. If I see the number five in inventions I have no interest in that project.

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