Coke’s Bridge Program Cultivating Tech Startups

With the rapid influx of world-shaking technologies being released at the consumer level today, entrepreneurs from all industries must be asking themselves a key question: How do you intelligently build a “smart” company?

When it comes to food and beverage, information technology is impacting all levels of business from product to management. For a large conglomerate like The Coca-Cola Company, which has the means to cultivate the technologies that could shape the future of an industry, it’s about sowing the seeds today.

That’s just what Coca-Cola is doing with The Bridge, a six-month commercialization program for tech startups exploring innovative new technologies that tackle everything from artificial intelligence to virtual reality to cybersecurity.

Now on its fourth class, The Bridge is based in Tel Aviv with a focus on cultivating Israeli companies, but its early success has led to partner programs in Mexico City and in Coca-Cola’s hometown of Atlanta.

Unlike the recently shuttered Founders program, which acted as a Silicon Valley-based startup incubator, The Bridge does not have a direct investment arm and instead functions as a six-month accelerator, providing commercial guidance with a focus on marketing and valuable networking. Coca-Cola does not acquire equity or an ownership stake outright, and though more mature companies could potentially become a target for acquisition, the program is not specifically structured for that purpose. While there’s less of a risk in it for Coca-Cola, The Bridge helps for the soda giant to further integrate technology into its regimen on its path to become a more “digital company.”

“As we look at how we want to advance our digital acumen both externally and internally, we’re looking at companies that fit within some of the digital strategies and capabilities that we believe that if we invest in, and gain high level and maturity and advancements in, it will help us propel our growth,” Michelle Routh, chief enterprise architect for Coca-Cola, told BevNET.

According to Routh, Coca-Cola has pinpointed a variety of startups that are creating products the beverage company will be able to utilize in the near future, including those focused on consumer data and segmentation, digital publishing strategies, and using artificial intelligence and machine learning to aid with internal IT operations.

Coca-Cola has also partnered with Mercedes-Benz and Turner Broadcasting in support of the program in Tel Aviv, as the startups involved are largely working on technologies with applications across industries. For example, NeoMatix, an Israeli startup in the most recent class, is creating an automated tire monitoring service which utilizes computer vision and machine learning algorithms — something that is expected to benefit Mercedes as much as it will aid in a beverage company’s truck distribution networks.

For startups, The Bridge experience focuses deeply on product evolution through collaboration and access to the inner layers of Coca-Cola, working closely with experts from throughout the company to improve their product.

“It’s through their conversations, through their discussions and engagements with people across the entire Coca-Cola system from the supply chain and marketing and brands and financing and customer teams, that we understand their idea, but also think about the ‘What If,’” Routh said. “A lot of that conversation, and them having that true connection point to business people working and running an enterprise, has really helped them evolve their product.”

Other Bridge startups with direct beverage industry implications include Bringg, a CPG delivery app which Routh compared to Uber in its interface. Retailers can use the app to make instant product purchases, and can track the delivery as it leaves the warehouse for their store.

The Bridge’s website includes a gallery of alumni startups that have gone through the program. Among the early success stories include Cimagine, an augmented reality tool that lets users visualize products they plan to purchase in the room where it will be placed, was purchased last year by Snap for a reported $30-40 million.

“We’re really trying to be more consumer-centric and we’re really trying to have the consumer guide us in where we need to focus and become more of a total beverage company,” Routh said. “And having a closer connection to who our consumers, what their insights are, what products they want to drink, how they want to engage with us as a brand, is a really big part of that. And I think we have to become a more kind of agile, quick-moving organization to start learning and testing these new technologies because things happen so quickly out there.”

Because the dynamics of the beverage industry are changing so rapidly, Routh said, there is always the risk of a small company becoming a serious competitor quickly, especially in the field of e-commerce. By embracing tech, Coca-Cola is working to keep pace with the innovation to become the “future beverage company” it will need to be to continue to thrive. The Bridge is one way the company can achieve that goal.