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The shape & texture of things to come

Our ice cream R&D is applying a radical new technology that reproduces nature’s way of coping with cold to deliver truly original products.

Fish, plants & ice cream

Scientists discovered that fish survive in freezing water and some plants endure frost because they contain special ice structuring proteins (ISPs) which inhibit the formation of ice crystals.

By the mid 1990s, when we were looking to re-establish our competitive advantage in the ice cream category and drive new business growth, ISP technology was showing considerable promise. We recognized its potential to produce ice cream with more fruit, less fat and fewer calories, as well as new shapes and textures.

This enabled us to make ice creams in a way no-one else had ever done before. Plus, it would allow the products to withstand a poor cold chain, so we could serve consumers that had, up until then, been out of reach.

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Searching for a solution

How to source the quantities of ISP needed for commercial ice cream production was a key challenge for the research team.

We had completed development work on the fermentation process at the R&D lab in Vlaardingen and scaled up at our Bioapplications Center in Naarden. However, we realized that we didn’t have the in-house capacity to deliver the required volumes, and that we needed to collaborate. We started the search for the best partner and found them in the US. The one we selected had the scale, expertise and cost structure to meet our targets.

Getting to market

We decided to conduct all the development work at Unilever and then transfer the technology to our partner. Since they were in the US, good communication was critical. We paired up expertise so that we could talk directly to each other. This, together with frequent review meetings, meant we made rapid progress and could quickly deal with any issues.

A change in culture

A significant problem loomed in 2003, two years into the relationship and just as we were launching Popsicle Shots in the U.S. This was when Martek acquired our original, smaller partner. After initial uncertainty, Martek committed to continuing the relationship, which has gone from strength to strength ever since.

Unilever R&D's spokesman said: “This is unique technology that can give us a competitive edge for a long time. It has also changed our culture, bringing a new open-mindedness about where the possibilities can come from. Looking back on it now, it’s clear that we could never have done all of this ourselves.”

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