Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Collaboration Accelerates Green Chemistry Innovation Throughout an Industry

In its pilot run, the Green Chemistry & Commerce Council's Collaborative Innovation Challenge helped the likes of Beiersdorf, P&G, SC Johnson and Unilever address a pressing product formulation issue.

There are times when regulatory or economic pressures demand change in a product or process at a pace that’s faster than any one brand manufacturer can handle alone — times when the search for an improved chemical input or process may strain the resources of its R&D department, when the effort to draw innovation up through a supply chain may require calling on experts not yet discovered.

The Green Chemistry & Commerce Council (GC3) — a 130-company, multi-stakeholder organization focused on accelerating commercialization of safer chemistry solutions — established a new program called the Collaborative Innovation Challenge (CIC), specifically to address such times. In its pilot run, this pre-competitive partnership program has helped the likes of Beiersdorf, Procter & Gamble, SC Johnson and Unilever and more* address a pressing product formulation issue.

The pilot run of the CIC targeted preservatives used in products such as cosmetics, personal care products and household cleaners. Mounting health and safety concerns about traditional preservatives (also called biocides in these applications) such as parabens and formaldehyde have led the European Union and other regions to restrict their use. And retailers including Walmart, Target and CVS have developed policies limiting some of these same preservatives from the products they sell.

Facing these pressures, 11 major brands, two major retailers and five preservatives suppliers signed on as sponsors of the GC3’s Collaborative Innovation Challenge. Their common goal: Accelerate the commercialization of new, safer preservatives developed in line with the principles of green chemistry.

The sponsors jointly developed performance and safety criteria for the challenge; and then, through an open innovation process with provider InnoCentive, the GC3 put out the call to hear from those who might have safer, sustainable chemistry solutions. The Challenge drew 48 alternative preservative submissions from around the globe — some very early stage and some already in the market — from small companies, government research labs, and individual scientists and entrepreneurs.

The submissions were then judged by a panel of experts drawn from the sponsoring companies. First came an environmental and safety screen, which was used to narrow the field to seven finalists. These seven preservatives were then evaluated for performance. With the performance evaluations in hand, and after hearing from the each of the finalists in a pitch competition, the expert panel divided a pool of prize seed money among the seven.

Most importantly, the sponsors are now engaged in direct dialogue, further testing and joint development efforts with the innovators. Given the further testing required, and governmental approvals that must be gained, commercialization of any of these new inputs will likely take several years. But the process undoubtedly received a jump-start from this collaborative effort. That jump-start — the benefits that accrued to the sponsoring companies — took several forms:

  1. An amplified demand signal for technology scouting efforts. When the companies joined forces to collaboratively scout for new technologies, they broadcast a more powerful demand signal that reached wider and further, reaching innovators from all corners of the world.

  2. Pooling know-how to get more robust results. The collaborators were able to share knowledge on safety profiles and performance of potentially more sustainable chemical and material substitutes. Technical professionals in competing firms rarely have the opportunity to exchange mutually beneficial information in this way.

  3. Pooling resources to lower per company costs. Exploring alternatives can tax any firm’s precious R&D resources. These firms needed alternatives for very similar, non-competitive technologies. It simply made sense to pool funds to cover costs of searching out the alternative technologies to accelerate development.

  4. De-risking new technologies. New technology inherently brings the risk of uncertainty. Does the technology hold up under performance and safety testing? Can it survive the rigorous and expensive path to commercialization? In this collaboration, a larger team of experts from a diverse group of companies was able to review and discuss the possible alternatives. This robust screening process will serve to reduce the risk that each individual firm faces as they move to adopt any of the technologies.

  5. Pushing the innovation accelerator. This collaboration included both large brand manufacturers and smaller, “greener” firms. This played an important role in influencing the range of alternative technologies evaluated. Larger firms tend to be relatively conservative in ingredient replacement, favoring smaller changes in technologies that often use similar chemistries; they need replacements that can scale rapidly. Smaller firms, on the other hand, need significantly smaller supplies of ingredients and are able to explore more novel, small-scale technologies, providing a proof of concept that can de-risk later investment by larger firms. This creates a vibrant ecosystem for innovation, the seeds of which were evident in the course of this collaboration.

These benefits were echoed in feedback from both sponsors and innovators involved in the Challenge. That feedback included the following comments:

“J&J was delighted to sponsor this unprecedented initiative that enabled companies to pool their knowledge and experience to identify promising new technologies for preservation and accelerate their application in the market.”Homer Swei, Director of Product Stewardship at Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc.

“We are constantly scouting for new, safer ingredients for our products, and preservatives are an important focus. By collaborating with our peers in this competition, we learned about and evaluated the efficacy of new solutions that we had not found on our own, and now we may be able to help innovators bring those solutions to market and scale for the benefit of all.”Kaj Johnson, Senior Director of Product Development at People Against Dirty (parent company of Method and Ecover).

“We are delighted to receive an award in the GC3 Preservatives Challenge. This was an incredible opportunity to present our natural preserving agents to potential customers and partners, and we gained valuable insights from our conversations with the CPG companies and suppliers that are seeking new preservatives.”Thomas Henkel, Senior Business Development Manager at IMD Natural Solutions GmbH

The GC3 is now in the process, along with its 130 member organizations, of identifying the focus of the next Collaborative Innovation project. These could address both challenges of commercializing new chemistries, as well as addressing barriers to widespread adoption in the value chain — such as cost, reformulation or performance. Clearly, the technologies that confer specific competitive advantage to a company are not ripe for such collaboration. A cosmetic company, for example, would likely never join its competitors in the search for a new, plant-based, anti-aging ingredient. And companies may not wish to partner if they have already invested significant resources into, and made significant headway in, finding a new, more sustainable technology.

But major brands are showing a significant appetite for collaboration when the target chemical, material or process is common to the products sold by multiple brands, is necessary to those products, is under market or regulatory pressure (a “pain point”), and does not confer any particular competitive advantage.

The GC3’s work with companies across sectors has identified a number of chemistry challenges that meet these criteria — including flame retardants in electronics and cross-linking agents in textile coatings. The GC3 has already initiated conversations on new projects addressing plasticizers in flexible plastics, and cyclic siloxanes in cosmetic and consumer products, and looks forward to initiating new Collaborative Innovation projects that accelerate the commercialization of better chemistry solutions in coming years.

*Category 1 Corporate Sponsors – Designers and Judges of the Competition - Babyganics, Beautycounter, Beiersdorf, Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson (J&J), Kao USA, Method – People Against Dirty, Procter & Gamble (P&G), Reckitt Benckiser (RB), SC Johnson, Target, Unilever, Walmart

Category 2 sponsors - Preservative suppliers that could take solutions to scale but were not part of the judging process. Dow Microbial Control, Lonza, Schülke, Symrise and Thor.

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