In 2013, after senior leadership at The Coca-Cola Company challenged its IT staff to find ways to accelerate innovation, Alan Boehme realized that rounding up the usual suspects would not get the job done. Instead, Boehme, an enterprise IT veteran with deep connections in Silicon Valley, realized that he had to find a way to bring the vibrant energy of startups to the problems his company was facing.
The result is a program Boehme, Chief Technology Officer, Chief Innovation Officer & Chief Architect at the Coca-Cola Company, and his team created called The Bridge, which held its third showcase event in Atlanta on September 27, 2016. In short, The Bridge is a systematic way that a large organization can engage with startups to move the needle with respect to urgent problems. See this video for a summary of the 2015 Bridge Showcase event.
Here's how it works in a nutshell:-
- Internal sponsors are found who have problems and some budget to help fund The Bridge program. In later iterations external partners such as Turner have joined the program.
- The internal sponsors help define a set of relevant themes, like customer engagement, marketing innovation, health and wellness.
- Startups are found that have technology relevant to those themes.
- The startups are offered marketing and other training to participate in the program.
- Startups connect with internal sponsors over the course of the program, with a view to doing a proof of concept with their technology at Coca-Cola.
- At a public showcase event, all the progress made during the Bridge program is celebrated and the startups are introduced to customers and partners.
So far Boehme and his team have run three cycles of the bridge, resulting in a variety of projects that have applied the technology to both marketing and operations functions.
Here are some of the startups that Coca-Cola has engaged with through The Bridge:
- Cimagine allows a tablet to become an augmented reality system for projecting what a cooler, vending machine, signages, or other point of sale material would look like in an retail environment. Store owners can take a photo and virtually set up equipment. Using this technique reduces delays and return rates.
- Bringg is creating an “Uber” for the enterprise provides a platform to support delivery of products/services on demand.
- Fusic offers an innovative music and film creation , sharing and social platform allowing the user to be part of the theatrical video clip or music video and share with their friends
- Weisbeerger is a big data analytics platform that provides in-depth insights to beverage use-age and facilitates on data driven sight marketing and promotional campaigns.
- Endor out of MIT implements the concept of “Social Physics” to gain behavioral insights into consumers with minimal effort.
- Dov-e creates a way to use inaudible sound waves to trigger actions on mobile devices (promotions, coupons , experiences ) delivered through TV, Radio, movie screens speakers etc.
The result of The Bridge is that Coca Cola has been able to quickly adopt new technology in ways that would have never been possible using traditional processes.
“Innovation is an engine, a journey toward something new that can be frightening. It must be pursued and fought for,” said Boehme. “The things you achieve through perseverance and by taking risks are worth all of the obstacles that you are facing.”
It is important to point out that Boehme and his team are not proposing that the current way that enterprise IT works should be tossed out. Traditional IT at a healthy and well-run company helps a business operate in a stable manner, reduce costs, adopt new technology in a way that minimizes risks and solve new problems with a certain type of innovation.
“IT departments constantly innovate with the help of consultants and vendors to solve the unique problems facing their businesses and also to adopt proven technology in a methodical manner,” said Anthony Newstead, Global Group Director Emerging Technologies & Strategic Innovation, who works on Boehme’s team. “But the processes in place to govern traditional IT act as an immune system against the type of innovation that comes from startups.”
Startups are not about proven technology, but about new technology and new ways of working that are just emerging. To succeed, startups must be targeting important problems that are present in many companies. The question The Bridge seeks to answer is: How can a large organization jumpstart its journey to new ways of working by engaging with startups?
“The Bridge is about balancing efforts at innovation in IT,” said Newstead. “We want to find the parts of Coca-Cola where a startup’s ideas and technology can move the needle, and try that approach out and see if it works.”
The Bridge overcomes the IT immune system by taking barriers away and getting to the proof of concept as fast as possible. If a project is successful, enterprise wide deployment may indeed be achieved through traditional IT processes. But The Bridge accelerates discovery of ways to make new technology work.
The Bridge also works because it creates good will. Boehme says that seeking sincerely to help the startups participating in The Bridge, rather than trying to negotiate purchase of equity or other models for engaging with startups, really creates a positive environment for exploring new ideas.
There are mechanisms for Coca-Cola to protect competitive advantages it may gain from new technologies. Limited non-compete agreements are signed so that the new technology cannot be used by specified competitors of Coke for the 7-month duration of the Bridge program.
The Bridge also nicely supplements the traditional form of IT innovation where consultants are brought in to create a company specific solution. In the Bridge, startups are creating general solutions with a broad appeal. This focus on using generally applicable technology for innovation also fills innovation white space in a new way.
Expanding the Bridge
At the event in Atlanta, Coca Cola was joined by Turner who signed up for The Bridge program for the most recent cycle. Boehme realized that by adding other companies to The Bridge it would be possible to engage with more start ups and to offer different types of training.
“We’re a company that has always strived to be ahead of where the media consumption patterns are going,” said Peter Scott, Vice President of Emerging Media and Innovation for Turner Studios and Turner Sports. “When Coke asked us to join, it was clear that The Bridge would allow us to explore and find new companies that have synergies with our mission, whether it’s blockchain, ad blocking, video highlights, or whatever the topic is.”
Mercedes-Benz is also planning to join the next cycle of the The Bridge. An IT innovation strategist at Daimler said Mercedes-Benz is in discussions for a strategic cooperation with Coca-Cola and Turner Broadcasting in order to enhance the status of the development and sales of digital services to customers, to introduce new working methods for their employees, as well as new organizational structures, and to better anticipate the needs of their customers and offer them more personalized products and services. The IT strategist said the Bridge will help Mercedes-Benz share best practices with other giants, like Coca-Cola and Turner, as well as the most promising startups. New concepts can be quickly tested and help foster an entrepreneurial spirit, and promote radical innovation and outside-the-box-thinking.
Startups find that The Bridge is an opportunity to learn about how their tech works in the real world, to learn key skills, and to build confidence.
“The Bridge provided a huge opportunity to work with a company like Coke,” said Noa Levy, COO and co-founder of Platica, which offers a vertical AI engine for automatic customer support over any chat platform. “As a small startup, getting to work with this kind of client would be near to impossible. Learning how to market and sell and also being treated as a peer by team members at Coke was amazing.”
Doron Alter, co-founder and CEO of Endor, a startup that offers analytics to help understand, predict, and influence the dynamics of human behavior, said that bringing the “fail fast” mentality of startups to Coke had a mutually beneficial effect. “Within a matter of two months of joining The Bridge, we actually started to pilot our technology within the Coca-Cola ecosystem and after only two more months the results were very clear,” said Alter. “Without The Bridge, we would have never been able to work with such a big company and in such a short time.”
The first round of The Bridge was run in Tel Aviv in 2014. It focused on bringing startups from Israel to the attention of Coca-Cola. The Tel Aviv program continues and is currently in its third cycle. Boehme’s vision is to carry The Bridge forward by including more sponsoring partners to startups in other geographies so that the local communities there can offer their technology to Coca-Cola and others. To find out more about The Bridge see http://thebridgebycocacola.com/.
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