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Accelerating new product development in industry

Built on the concept of the use of automated screening and characterisation approaches to accelerate material and product development, the Centre of Materials Discovery (CMD) was established through £11m in funding. This facility allowed a step change in the productivity and delivery of business led research and development programs.

The challenge

The development of new formulations requires numerous experiments in order to identify the optimal properties and understand structure-function relationships. Traditionally, much of this development was done by hand with experiments that were carried out in series or alternatively by small scale combinatorial chemistry. Both approaches have limitations, conventional development is time-consuming, whilst conventional combinatorial screening prepares new molecules and materials in only small yields making function testing challenging. 

Research action

The teams of Profs Andy Cooper, Matt Rosseinsky and Steve Rannard have developed, and still continue to work on automated high-throughput equipment and accelerated testing procedures. These approaches allowed more experiments to be carried out with any given time and allowed the delivery of discoveries in a faster and more reproducible manner than traditional approaches. This research was the basis of the creation of the CMD.

Working in partnerships

The CMD was opened in 2007 and co-located academic and industry staff in an “open-collaboration model”, providing industry partners with access to bespoke facilities and equipment/expertise of the academic team. In its lifetime over 70 companies benefited from using CMD facilities and CMD staff, of these, Unilever was the primary and founding partner.

The centre was funded through the North West development agency, University of Liverpool and Unilever.

The success of the high-throughput, hypothesis-led approach of Cooper and Rannard and showcased in the CMD has now been applied at a much greater scale. In 2017, the £81M Materials Innovation Factory (MIF) launched at the University of Liverpool. Unilever are a key partner as evidenced through their £25M investment in the MIF and it represents the single largest investment in academic R&D in the 150-year history of Unilever.

Outputs and outcomes

The CMD accelerated the design and delivery of new innovations and resulted in the launch of products for Unilever. For example, a single polymer ingredient developed at the CMD has reoccurring sales of more than €500M per year.

Additionally, the CMD allowed Unilever researchers to use the automated platforms and rapid testing protocols established based on Cooper, Rosseinsky and Rannard’s underpinning research to make a step change in their productivity. For example, new molecules discovered in the CMD were deployed in commercial products in less than 3 years.


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