Unilever on taking its startup program Foundry to Asia

Last week Unilever Foundry carried out a live startup competition at Singapore-based event InnovFest UnBound. It crowned AI-powered predictive marketing platform NextUser as the champion, after pitting seven startups against each other in a three-minute pitch-off style battle.

The Drum spoke to Barbara Guerpillon, Unilever Foundry manager for Southeast Asia and Australia, to find out about the program’s global growth and what the FMCG giant is looking for in Southeast Asia.

How long has the Foundry been going in Asia and how has it been so far?

The Unilever Foundry was set up in May 2014, with a team headquartered in London. We have a presence in San Francisco, and in Singapore for Asia. Since then, we have launched over 100 pilots with innovative startups around the world.

We launched the Singapore program in January 2015 and provide an opportunity for startups and entrepreneurs to collaborate on global projects, access mentoring from marketing professionals and tap into a new source of funding from Unilever Ventures, our venture capital arm.

I came on board as Unilever Foundry manager for Southeast Asia and Australia in October 2015, working with our brands to accelerate experimentation and piloting of new technologies to become pioneers in the future of marketing.

What are brands looking for from startups in Southeast Asia?

Unilever brands are constantly looking for innovative technology solutions but these objectives vary for every brand. In Southeast Asia, we are on the lookout to find startups that tackle specific challenges including advertising and marketing tech solutions which enable superior digital marketing, mobile, content, ecommerce, analytics and data management.

Early last year, we had three project briefs from our global brands based in Singapore – CLEAR, Lux and Lifebuoy - to enhance consumer engagement. Startups were given the opportunity to pilot their technology with Unilever and to present solutions that were rooted in digital marketing.

For example, the project from Lux required a partner to turn its social platform in Indonesia into a self-sustaining, community-driven portal. Anti-dandruff brand CLEAR wanted to link young adults’ grooming attitudes to their online social net worth, while Lifebuoy aimed to identify disease ‘hot-spots’ in real-time in order to help mothers take preventive health measures.

Are there key pain points that startups can help address for brands?

Brands all have their challenges, of course we can always speak to engagement, connections and community – but really, the power of The Foundry is the opportunity it presents to our business to think differently and adapt differently at a much faster rate than we normally would.

We are particularly excited about our new partnership with Indiegogo which aims to support projects and accelerate green innovation and create 'consumer-championed products'.

This partnership allows the The Foundry to not just help our brands but support our ambition to de-couple our growth from our environmental footprint, while increasing our positive social impact.

What was it about NextUser that was interesting?

NextUser presented a unique and compelling approach to consumer engagement. Through personalisation of the digital experience, it integrates all communication touch points including website, mobile, email, social networks and customer service to help brands better understand their consumers. For example, using artificial intelligence to predict consumer’s personality and voice with products like personality insights from any text, voice of the customer analysis from any review, and vocal questions and answers.

I imagine that you have a lot of startups wanting to be a part of your work – what would be your one piece of advice to them?

Be confident and practice your pitch so that you can deliver it in three minutes. A solid three-minute pitch can help you attract vendors and suppliers, woo advertisers, recruit employees, and win over other advocates. And, yes, maybe even investors someday.

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