Nestle, Unilever, Sara Lee: Pitching Ideas - TheStreet

DOWNERS GROVE, Ill. (TheStreet) -- A growling stomach is the mother of invention, which may be why the concept of open innovation -- welcoming new ideas from outsiders -- is especially popular among the world's food companies.

Here's how to pitch ideas to three of the world's food giants:

Unilever

(UL) - Get Report

,

Sara Lee

( SLE) and

Nestle

(NSRGY) - Get Report

. Nestle this week announced a patent-infringement lawsuit against Sara Lee over its coffee-capsule products.

How to pitch ideas to Sara Lee:

According to the slogan, nobody doesn't like

Sara Lee

, the purveyor of successful brands like Ball Park franks, Jimmy Dean (

R.I.P.

) sausages, and its signature brand of Sara Lee baked goods. (Apparently,

somebody

-- Nestle -- doesn't like Sara Lee.) Inventors who want to submit a not-unlikeable idea to the company can do so through Sara Lee's Open Innovation program, which launched formally in November 2008.

All ideas are welcome, but those seriously looking to do business with the company may want to address Sara Lee's specific needs, which are posted on its Web site. Many are focused on ways to improve existing product lines.

Current needs include aroma-preserving packaging for coffee, ingredients that "enhance the alertness, concentration or memory and can be used in a coffee or tea beverage," ways to improve the shelf life of concentrated milk, and ingredients that benefit the digestive system. (In case it doesn't go without saying, the company notes that suggested ingredients must be allowed under EU regulations.)

Inventors are invited to register themselves and their ideas online, with the understanding that the company may post them for public review. (Many ideas posted on the site seem to cater to the submitters' personal tastes -- "Garlic Pop Corn," for example, and "Smoked Salmon Garlic Mixed with Rice and Creamy Sauce Soup.") To that end, it's a good idea to patent ideas before submitting them to the company.

How to pitch ideas to Unilever:

With foodie brands ranging from Slim-Fast to Ben & Jerry's,

Unilever

has 163,000 employees, including 6,000 who focus on nothing but research and development. But the Anglo-Dutch corporation still seeks product ideas from outside the company -- teaming up with outside suppliers and universities. Last year, company officials taught an open-innovation class at the Rotterdam School of Management.

When Unilever wanted to build a better tooth cleaner, the innovation team sought help from Italian design firm

Pininfarina

(better known for its car-design partnership with

Ferrari

), which collaborated with Unilever to create the Signal Style Tech toothbrush.

Independent inventors are invited to submit ideas in the areas of home care, personal care and food. The submission process involves submitting a

confidentiality waiver agreement

to open.innovation@unilever.com. As with most invention submissions, the company recommends protecting the idea with a patent before submitting it.

How to pitch ideas to Nestle:

The Nestle Research Center, the research arm of food giant

Nestle

, employs 300 scientists. They conduct more than 70 clinical trials a year to develop products like the Nescafe Foam Booster, a means of creating instant foam for instant coffee.

Nestle is a champion of open innovation, with hundreds of outside partnerships and an in-house research lab at the University of Tokyo. The research center is looking for scientifically sound ideas in the areas of energy and weight management, digestive comfort, protection, skin health and beauty, and healthy aging. If the idea includes a new ingredient, the company asks for a detailed explanation including required dosage and regulatory status.

Inventors who have embedded a fountain of youth into a chocolate bar can submit the idea through a

form on the company's Web site

. Inventors who don't receive a response within three months should consider their ideas officially rejected.

-- Reported by Carmen Nobel in Boston.

>>Colgate Seeks Fresh Ideas In Personal Care

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>>Nestle Shrugs off Rivals for UK Market Share

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