Unilever Foundry eyes Asian startups with Singapore launch
By Keith Liu January 19, 2015
- Singapore launch of Unilever Foundry comes just 2mth after the Philippines
- Announces 3 new project briefs potentially worth US$50,000 upwards
STARTUPS in Asia looking to work with large consumer brands like Lux and Lifebouy can make their case to Unilever.
The FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) giant announced three new projects as part of the Singapore launch of Unilever Foundry – a global startup community engagement programme that kicked off in London in May 2014, expanded to the Philippines last November, and is now in the Lion City.
The focus on Asian startups is reflective of Unilever’s broader strategy. “Our industry in Europe and the United States is not growing very fast, and therefore industry-wide, there is less money for innovation,” said Peter Ter-Kulve, Unilever chairman South-East Asia and Australasia.
“… we are here at an unbelievable sweet spot, that we have the talent, the technology, and the cash to drive real change,” he said at the Singapore launch on Jan 15.
At its heart, Foundry is a crowdsourcing effort to tap into the pool of startup talents in order to solve some of Unilever’s marketing challenges – known in the advertising industry as ‘briefs’’
Marc Mathieu, senior vice president global marketing at Unilever, admitted as much, saying that, “It was really all about marketing and all about understanding where marketing was being invented towards the future, and using therefore startups and building partnerships with the ecosystem of startups to pioneer marketing of the future.”
Mathieu said he believes breakthrough ideas and novel solutions would more likely come from startups, going by the company’s experience with its investment arm, Unilever Ventures.
Unlike Ventures however, the focus of Foundry is geared towards pilots that are led and financed by its various brand teams. So far, Unilever’s brands have already spent US$3 million through Foundry-related projects, with another US$150,000 just added to the pot.
For the startups, successful pilots would potentially lead towards bigger pay-offs. Aside from getting the attention of Unilever Ventures for additional rounds of investment, the pilots could move into larger phase implementations, such as NewAer’s iBeacon technology that turns Magnum ice-cream cabinets into proximity-based communication devices.
“Our goal is to help startups move from startups to scale-ups, so it’s this idea of taking a proven idea, give them the chance to experiment their product in a new territory; and then it’s about giving access … to our global brand portfolio, our global reach and our global marketing budget,” said Mathieu.
“… If the solution works, it can be a really strong accelerator for the startup,” he added.
Aiming for 50 pilots globally
Unilever isn’t alone in calling for such collaborations. Confectionery maker Mondelez International introduced its initiative two years ago with the Mobile Futures programme, resulting in nine pilots in the United States, and an expansion to Australia last year.
Unilever is more ambitious, committing to launch 50 pilots around the world with Foundry. The briefs also span across a wider spectrum of technology enablement, not just around wireless mobility.
For example, the project from Lux requires a partner to turn its social platform in Indonesia into a self-sustaining, community-driven portal.
Anti-dandruff brand Clear wants to link young adults’ grooming attitudes to their online social net worth, while Lifebouy aims to identify disease ‘hot spots’ in real-time in order to help mothers take preventive health measures.
Aligned with national aspirations
While the above projects are global in nature and open to just about anyone, Unilever wants to ensure that Singaporean startups are well-represented in the selection process.
That would certainly be good news to the country’s communications regulator, the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA). Its investment subsidiary, Incofomm Investments Pte Ltd (IIPL), played a key part in showcasing potential partners to Unilever.
According to the head of IIPL, Dr Alex Lin (pic), there is clearly a trend among large multinationals to engage with startups.
“The key challenge is how to gel this whole thing together,” he said, referring to the relationship between the corporate beneficiary, the startup and the investor.
Lin is convinced however, that startups would benefit from having a large customer base to work with, infrastructure such as distribution channels and logistics, and domain knowledge through corporate mentors – key factors that would help them succeed in the future.
While it’s possible that large firms may ‘borrow’ the new ideas from the pitch process and implement them internally, or leverage their size to make unfair demands on startups, Lin said such criticism doesn’t take into consideration the risk that’s faced by the corporate partner – as it would need to expose its company data and internal machinery to relatively small and unknown companies.
For Unilever, these concerns would be valid, if not for the fact that the company puts money upfront and already has a number of positive, on-going engagements with startups.
Some of these include location-based retail marketing firm Sprooki, data analytics company Eyeota, and online grocer RedMart.
Companies keen to be part of Unilever’s massive marketing machinery can apply on the website. Successful applicants will be invited to make their pitch at events held throughout the year.
Should they be chosen, Unilever does offer a minimum of US$50,000 to kick off a pilot (depending on the brief) that would typically run for a year.
The Foundry also includes a mentorship programme that startups can leverage, allowing them to partner with Unilever’s brand marketers for a period of three months.
Companies can apply to get advice on fine-tuning their product marketing or building their brand, though Unilever does unabashedly specify that its mentors are “especially interested in supporting companies in the areas of digital marketing, mobile, content, e-commerce, analytics and data.”
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