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This is How Start-ups and Corporates Work Together to Solve Problems

Unilever Foundry gives aspiring start-ups the chance to validate their ideas by tackling big-time challenges faced by the $60-billion company

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BY Marishka M. Cabrera - 19 Jan 2018

This is How Start-ups and Corporates Work Together to Solve Problems

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

In the realm of solving big problems, can one truly get the best of both worlds?

Perhaps when one matches the start-up’s agility and out-of-the-box thinking with the resources and time-tested processes of a corporation, it can be possible.

Unilever Foundry is a program that allows start-ups to connect with one of the oldest multinational companies in the world. It was created in May 2014 out of London, where the Unilever is headquartered. In January 2015, Unilever Foundry in Singapore was launched.

“It is a platform for both worlds to engage and have a meaningful conversation, and also meaningful pilots,” says Barbara Guerpillon, head of Unilever Foundry SEAA.

Unilever Foundry doesn’t work like an incubator, which means they do not invest directly in start-ups. What they provide is an opportunity to work with Unilever. More specifically, the role of Unilever Foundry is to understand internally the various global and regional challenges the company encounters and see whether there’s a different way of tackling them. So instead of reinventing the wheel, they explore partnerships with start-ups.

These challenges, outlined in the “Briefs” section of its website, can range from the creation of a digital dentist—an online platform for people to access dental advice on demand—to humanizing big data to improving access to water. Start-ups are then invited to pitch their innovative solutions.

Working together

According to Guerpillon, what Unilever looks for in start-ups is, first and foremost, the technology they can offer.

“We identify start-ups with the best technology to tackle the problem that we have,” she says.

Once Unilever Foundry identifies a start-up that might be able to solve a brand issue, the start-up will work on a pilot with a Unilever brand for a period of three to six months on average. If a pilot is successful, a longer-term relationship may be in the works.

Since its launch, the program has had 150 pilots globally and scaled up 45 start-ups, who have become global partners across geographies and brands.

“Remember that Unilever is a $60-billion company, which is present in 190 countries,” Guerpillon says, “so it’s a great opportunity for start-ups to actually learn to work with a big corporate like Unilever and a good opportunity to potentially scale with us across brands. That’s 400 brands, as well, so that’s quite a big playground.”

One of the program’s start-ups is Happi, a consumer engagement mobile app focused on young users in the developing world. Its Chief Happiness Officer Greg Lipper says the program provides an executive mentor to guide the entrepreneur and help him understand, say, how a client perceives the start-up’s value in relation to current alternatives.

“Start-ups need several things beyond capital and even revenue at their formative stage: validation from a global leader, feedback and coaching from a customer typical of the start-up’s target market, and real world use of the solution with a client willing to take an experimental approach and not expect perfection from day one,” Lipper says.  

For Andrew Lane, co-founder and CEO of Genero, a software platform for the creative community, working with Unilever forced them to “grow up quickly” and see to it that they are offering solutions that are smart and scalable for such a large company. The program, he notes, has been “an enormous boost for Genero, not only in Asia, but in other parts of the world, too.”

“Start-ups bring innovative and fresh thinking, combined with speed and agility, without the constraints that can come from larger organizations,” Lane says, [while] “Corporates bring structure, process, discipline, and real-world problems to solve. Together, you get to find the right balance that each team can bring, and craft disruptive solutions.”

Meaningful connections

Unilever has also recently launched a 22,000-sq.ft co-working space for start-ups called LEVEL3, based inside Unilever’s regional headquarters in Singapore. It was envisioned as a springboard for start-ups that operate in the areas of sustainability and social impact, marketing, ad tech, enterprise tech, logistics and last-mile delivery solutions, finance, and HR.

“It doesn’t guarantee you any business, but it guarantees you meaningful connections,” Guerpillon says, adding that start-ups in LEVEL3 get networking opportunities with venture capital firms, thought-leaders, and companies like Microsoft, Google, and Facebook. They can also connect start-ups with mentors that can help them grow their business.

Guerpillon herself is no stranger to the start-up scene, having run an e-commerce company she set up in Silicon Valley and was able to raise $1.5 million in seed funding.  She recalls her days as a start-up founder when one of her biggest mistakes was “not being connected enough with the businesses and make sure that I build a solution that people need.” LEVEL3, she says, is helping start-ups to grow, not just in Singapore, but in the region as well.

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