From Foundry To Ventures: How Unilever Invests In Startups

luis dicomoChange or die.

The smart brands acknowledge this. It’s one of the reasons why ad tech cabanas and beach houses have taken over the sandbars surrounding the Cannes Lions festival, and why ad tech yachts almost exclusively line the port.

“It’s important to us to understand what will change in the future and what will remain the same,” said Luis Di Como, Unilever’s SVP of global media.

He was speaking at Lions Innovations, a new part of the greater Cannes Lions festival dedicated to the creative use of data and technology. Not surprisingly, it’s sponsored by a diverse group of mostly tech companies that includes Google, Audi and Rubicon Project, as well as those that don’t historically frequent Cannes, such as Teradata.

Unilever’s presence is centered around its Foundry initiative, a program that began in May 2014. Tech startups can use the program to work through the development of pilot projects that will address Unilever’s needs.

The CPG giant selected 50 startups from 3,000 applicants, who pitch based on a Unilever brief outlining upcoming challenges and opportunities. The chosen few will work on a pilot and, if it’s successful, Unilever will invest further in a partnership to scale the solution. Thus far, Foundry has invested more than $6 million on 65 pilots.

Many of the Foundry’s 50 companies see it as platform to gain access to Unilever’s brands and agencies. They also get valuable training learning to pitch brands. They essentially identify what each brand manager wants and maintain a simple narrative filled with solid examples.

Notably, the vendors in the Foundry build ad or marketing tech. Think Ahalogy, recently named a Pinterest Marketing Development Partner, or Adludio, a mobile ad targeter.

By contrast, many of the companies funded by Unilever Ventures, the CPG’s venture capital and equity arm, build products to promote environmental sustainability. There are, however, a few marketing tech platforms working with Unilever Ventures, such as Brandtone, a “provider of mobile marketing solutions to consumer goods companies.”

And earlier this month, Olapic, which finds the best social media images that can be used for marketing purposes, received $15 million in Series B funding.

“This is the first year for the Foundry, but we’ve been investing for 15 years in businesses,” said Ian Lane, principal at Unilever Ventures.

Certainly the 50 companies in the Foundry have more opportunities to develop a structured pilot that solves a genuine business pain point – making them more visible and attractive to the investment arm.


But that doesn’t guarantee a windfall from Unilever Ventures.

“I’m looking for scalable businesses that can be massive, with fantastic management teams and a good business model,” Lane said.

Programmatic companies are notable absences from Unilever Ventures’ portfolio, even though its parent is heavily interested in it and even takes leading positions on hot-button issues like viewability. But investment from the brand side doesn’t mean Unilever Ventures will follow suit.

“We haven’t invested in programmatic, actually,” said Lane, noting that the practice is mostly handled by its media agency, Mindshare (though that account, like many others servicing large brands, is up for review). “It changes quickly so it’s an area we haven’t really invested in.”

Additionally, the chilling effect that seems to have swept the investor community could make it difficult for Unilever Ventures to get other partners on board. Even if it’s interested in a programmatic company, it doesn’t want to be the only one.

“We don’t want to invest in it alone,” Lane said.

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