Unilever’s global Foods Innovation Centre, affectionately known as “Hive”, officially opened on this day (December 6th) two years ago at the Wageningen Campus. Hive’s location amidst a whole ecosystem of food scientists, start ups, established companies and research institutes has been instrumental in the many innovations and partnerships that have launched since. We spoke to Andre Pots, Product & Process Science R&D Director, and Wendy van Herpen, R&D Director Ecosystems at Hive, to reflect on some of these achievements.
Hive is about bringing our top food innovators together in one truly collaborative place to create an ecosystem that spearheads breakthrough innnovations for a future-proof food system. Making food that tastes good, feels good and is a force for good all starts at Hive.
Underpinning this is the Unilever Future Foods ambition – big commitments the company has made to help solve one of the world’s greatest challenges - the need to transform our global food system to ensure everyone everywhere has access to sustainable and healthy food. Growing our plant-based portfolio to a €1bn business in the next six years; doubling the number of products delivering positive nutriton as well as continuing to lower calorie, salt and sugar levels across products, and halving food waste in our direct global operations from factory to shelf by 2025 also form part of Unilever’s Future Foods commitments. And of course accelerating the development of sustainable packaging.
Better tasting products as a result of collaboration
We have seen Hive bring several impressive innovations to market since it was established. Andre points to two in particular - the huge strides in the area of plant-based meat and advances in dressings.
The R&D teams at Hive were key in the rapid expansion of The Vegetarian Butcher, now available in 45 countries and growing at an exceptional rate. As well as great taste, consumers can enjoy the fact that choosing a product by The Vegetarian Butcher makes a very positive difference to our planet. For example, its new flagship vegan raw burger, “Patty on the back” has a 96% lower impact on global warming compared to pasture-fed beef.
“It’s a perfect example of a sustainable product that better meets the needs of the consumer. That’s what we are all striving to achieve at Hive,” says Andre. Advanced flavour technology was one of the key enabling factors for the product. Andre explains how a lot of this comes from Knorr heritage. Collaborating together allowed the teams at Hive to leverage this and develop it further with the end result being meatier and juicier plant-based meat products.
Many of the food innovations coming from Hive are providing consumers with great tasting plant-based products. For example, they can enjoy the inviting aroma of bacon sizzling in a pan, thanks to one of the newest innovations from The Vegetarian Butcher, or the delicious creaminess of a non-dairy Magnum with classic flavours like cracking dark chocolate or almond.
Dressings has also been a forerunner in advancing predictive modelling – an important technology that is deployed in everything from new product formulations to shelf life stability. It has reduced the formulation time from months to days, bringing accuracy and reliability with it and accelerating Unilever’s ambition to drive brands with purpose. The very successful launch of Hellmann’s vegan mayo is a great example of this technology in action.
Reducing salt and food waste
Being able to innovate great tasting and more sustainable food products with reduced salt levels is another noteworthy achievement being driven by Hive.
Knorr’s zero salt bouillon cubes are an example of a great innovation that is going down very well with consumers. Creating a salt-free stock cube is a complicated process, which required our food researchers at Hive to find an alternative solution for the formation and structure of the cube as the salt crystals normally do this. The richly-flavoured cubes are made with sustainably-sourced vegetables and herbs. In fact, 95% of the vegetables and herbs Knorr uses in its products are sustainably sourced, globally. It’s one of the many ways the brand is supporting regenerative agriculture and nutrition.
At The Vegetarian Butcher, the team has managed to reduce salt levels while increasing the shelf life of its products, bringing a very positive knock on for food waste as obseletes have been greatly reduced. The capabilty to successfully reduce salt while extending shelf life was inspired by learnings from the R&D Dressings and Savoury categories. It’s another great example of so-called “cross fertilisation” and being able to leverage these technologies across Unilever’s different foods categories.
Award-winning Hive building as a continuous source of inspiration
Hive’s purpose-built office is a very impressive space. It’s energy neutral and has been recognised as one of the most sustainable buildings in the world.
“Being able to work in a building like that is a constant reminder of Unilever’s ambition to make sustainable living commonplace and the crucial role foods play in that,” says Wendy.
Collaboration is the heartbeat of Hive and the building is the ideal space to inspire it. “All of us being together in such a stimulating place brings the discipline and focus we need to accelerate,” adds Wendy.
Driving partnerships to solve challenges like sustainable protein
Hive’s proximity to Wageningen University & Research – one of the leading centres for agri-food sciences in the world – is a big advantage. Being able to forge strong links with academia as well as many of the start ups that are close by is instrumental in Unilever’s food innovation goals. This collaboration includes sharing state-of-the-art research facilities, access to talent and forming new partnerships to solve key technological challenges.
“Partnerships are the foundation on which all great ecosystems are built and Hive is no exception,” says Wendy. Hive is currently participating in more than 200 global partnerships at present and growing!
For example, it’s working with Algenuity, a British biotech company that develops algae-based solutions for the food market and Scottish-Dutch food tech company ENOUGH which specialises in sustainable protein sources. Both partnerships are helping to advance Hive’s work in the area of plant-based products. Hive is also an active member in several networks, including Food Valley NL and the Dutch AI coalition.
“It’s about finding the shared value for collective success. That’s what partnerships bring. If you think you can do it alone, you’re not thinking big enough. We bring that mentality into everything we do at Hive,” says Wendy.
Addressing mounting global challenges
The challenges ahead of us - like climate change or demographic changes, as well as the opportunities - like enabling personalised nutrition through digital technologies - are huge. Unilever’s commitment to ensure net zero emissions from all its products by 2039 and zero emissions from its operations by 2030, puts sustainability front and centre of all the research and development work at Hive.
There is no time to waste. A buzzing Hive is at the heart of developing solutions to these challenges, creating great business opportunities and bringing them to the market quickly.