Despite an increasingly competitive marketplace and slumping revenues, consumer-products titan Unilever will continue to work with Perlegen Sciences to create merchandise developed with pharmacogenomics technologies and methodologies.
Though several companies are involved in this kind of research and development — Genaissance has a deal with British vitamin maker Sciona, and German companies WITA Proteomics and Lion Bioscience have collaborations with Nestle — Perlegen’s alliance is considered a bellwether for pharmacogenomics-technology companies interested in dipping their toes in non-medical markets.
The British company’s multi-year collaboration with Perlegen, signed last February, was designed to use the tiny genetic company’s whole genome-association technologies to develop new lines of personalized products ranging from shampoos to snacks to sunscreens. The companies hope “to understand why certain traits or bodily functions work, and then to see about ways to incorporate that into product development,” Matthew Fust, Perlegen’s former chief financial officer, said at the time. “The intent is not to get your DNA test on your way to Walgreens.”
Perlegen has likened the Unilever deal to a partnership it has with drug giant Pfizer, in which the companies investigate the genetic causes of cardiovascular disease. “With Unilever we can look into the fundamental genetic cause of sunburn, for example,” said Fust.
In the ensuing year, however, some pharmacogenomics insiders have wondered whether Unilever’s declining revenues and an increasingly competitive marketplace might cause investors to become anxious that genetically personalized products might not be the best place to spend R&D dollars.
Indeed, total revenue fell in 2003 to €42.9 billion ($52 billion) from $48.7 billion one year ago. Plus, Unilever, which underwent a massive restructuring during the past five years in which 1,200 brands were eliminated and 55,000 jobs were lost, cut 2003 revenue growth expectations for its biggest sellers to less than 3 percent from between 5 percent and 6 percent, according to the Wall Street Journal. Sales of these products grew 1.3 percent during the first three months of 2004.
Yet as late as this February, Unilever hinted at its goals of bringing additional science into the consumer-products fold.
Unilever “understand[s] the inter-relationships between nutrition, hygiene and personal care with feeling good, looking good and getting more out of life,” company chairman Antony Burgmans said in a statement to investors Feb. 12. “We can do this because of our strong science capability and our understanding of the lives of consumers around the world.”
And last week, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Unilever co-chairman Niall FitzGerald said “the future’s going to be different and we need to equip ourselves for the future.”
So the company continues to bet an undisclosed amount in research funding and royalties that Perlegen’s technologies will help equip it for this “different future.”
“We are progressing along nicely,” said Paul Cusenza, vice president of alliance management at Perlegen, when asked to comment on the status of the collaboration. “They’re doing good-quality research, and it’s all proceeding according to the original plan.”
Cusenza declined to offer specifics about the status of the collaboration. Officials from Unilever did not return multiple telephone calls seeking comment for this article.
According to Fust, who is now CFO at Palo Alto, Calif.-based Jazz Pharmaceuticals, a hypothetical project between Unilever and Perlegen would look like this: Unilever would send Perlegen DNA samples of people with curly hair and straight hair. Between six and 12 months later, after using its whole-genome association technologies, Perlegen would illustrate the genetic differences between these people, and Unilever, armed with those data, might eventually develop a kind of personalized shampoo.
Though the 75-year-old Unilever has discouraged Perlegen from disclosing which products have been slated for research — will it be the Dove moisturizing soap? Lipton tea? Hellmann’s mayonnaise? Breyers chocolate ice cream? — Fust described a likely R&D scenario thus:
“You might think, for example, if there was an opportunity to discover something new about the way the body metabolizes fats, then you might create a new kind of savory snack that would have a more heart-healthy fat component,” he said. “Or, if we learned more about why certain people have oily hair and others have dry hair, you could imagine creating new kinds of shampoos that can be customized to different kinds of hair.”
Asked to respond to critics’ opinions that Perlegen’s technology might better be used to study, say, cancer or neurodegenerative disease, Fust said that the Unilever deal does have a health-based component: “We certainly know that some people are better off applying sunblock than not applying sun-block, or eating low-fat food or non-fat food.”