Unilever Executives Wowed by PhilaU Students’ Creativity in Nexus Challenge

After an intense, weeklong sprint to develop innovative product ideas for the Nexus Challenge, Philadelphia University students presented their ideas to expert panels from Unilever, drawing heavy praise from the project’s sponsor.

Working in 12 teams, each consisting of business, industrial design and sustainability majors, students were assigned to work on one of three project challenges: hygiene, dispensing or implements. The Nexus Challenge — a collaborative, industry-sponsored project that challenges students to create market-ready product ideas in one week — began Oct. 18 and wrapped up with the students’ pitches on Oct. 25.

For the hygiene challenge, students developed novel business opportunities in the developing world to promote healthy hygiene habits, presenting their product ideas to Mike Massaro, global director of research and development for Unilever USA, Vibhav Sanzgiri, global director of research and development for Unilever India, and Vamsi Manthena, also in research and development for Unilever India.  The latter two skyped into the presentation from their offices in Mumbai.

“These ideas are seriously amazing,” Sanzgiri told the students. “I can’t believe you have done this in a week’s time. You have given us great ideas. It’s brilliant.”

The other two challenges focused on finding business opportunities for novel packaging and superior bathing experiences, with an emphasis on products that would be more sustainable than those currently on the market. Students proposed using recycled materials when possible and sought ways to eliminate waste.

“I think these are really, really great ideas,” said Kim Drosos, director of package development for Unilever USA. “These are the types of things we’ve been working on, and every team came up with a lot of really good concepts that really fit our brands.”

“I think what really made this successful was having different disciplines working on the challenge together in each group,” said Richard McNabb, global design director,personal care, for Unilever. “The way they built off each other’s ideas and worked together was really impressive.”

“This is true, true innovation,” said Laura Kleffer, Unilever’s global brand development manager for Axe skin cleansing. “When I first heard that the project would only last seven days, I thought it was a mistake. It sometimes takes us years to do these kinds of things. I was really impressed by the creativity shown by these students. They did great work.”

Unilever officials will be reviewing the student projects further to determine whether to move forward with any of the product ideas.

“It is difficult to imagine a more energy-filled academic activity than this one-week Nexus Challenge,” said Mike Leonard, academic dean of Kanbar College’s School of Design and Engineering, who helped coordinate the project. “The students bring out their best thinking and problem solving skills, add their technical and communication skills and rely on great teamwork to glue their processes together. The results usually exceed the expectations of the sponsor and energize their product development teams.”

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