Betting Beyond Beer

How the world's leading brewer built a fleet of innovative teams eager to uncover and respond to consumer needs to focus on the future.

The Challenge the challenge

Anheuser-Busch InBev SA (AB InBev) is the largest brewer in the world, wielding a portfolio of more than 500 brands that includes consumer favorites Budweiser, Corona, Brahma, Cass, Eagle Lager, and Stella Artois. This company is a truly global one, employing 160,000 people in 50 countries and generating $49.6 billion USD in 2020. Since people have been brewing and drinking beer for nearly 12,000 years, and since AB InBev has been a major corporate player for the last 150 of those, the company has plenty of reasons to be comfortable with its success.

However, as consumer behavior and trends were shifting, AB InBev realized it needed to rethink its approach to innovation. As a result, in 2015, ZX Ventures, the global growth and innovation group of AB InBev, was born with a mandate to nurture, support, and grow the products and services of tomorrow the organization. Today, the organization builds, grow and invests in businesses across industries—from consumer products to technology and everything in between.

Innovation, Beer and Beyond

Patrick O'Riordan was one of the founding partners at ZX, and he explains that a significant part of ZX was focused on capturing immediate opportunities related to beer. It established businesses in ecommerce, merchandising, brand retail experiences, and expanded ABI’s portfolio of specialty beers, globally.

"Innovation in our consumer's experience of beer was very much a focus of our work," O'Riordan says. "Premium and specialty beer helped us expand to new channels and occasions all within arms-reach of consumer desire. It was something that ZX prioritized and mastered over the last number of years through our growth work."

When pushed to think beyond beer to spark exponential growth, ZX Ventures chose to partner with Bionic. Pedro Earp—who created ZX and now serves as the Chief ZX Ventures and Marketing Officer for AB InBev—says that the initial work was about reframing the opportunity.


"We realized that we're actually in the business of bringing people together," Earp explains. "Bionic helped us see that concept. To go from being a beer company to being in 'the business of bringing people together' freed us up to think about different ways of solving the consumer problem."

The Experiment the experiment

Beyond the Breweries

With this expanded vision in hand and a fast-growing team of innovators to execute upon it, ZX Ventures also pursued beer-adjacent and new technology opportunities, reaching beyond AB InBev's comfort zone with their Explore group, which was established and led by O'Riordan.


"Bionic asked us to think about where start-up activity was happening," O'Riordan explains. "Where is technology moving? What are your core capabilities? How does that marry with shifts that are happening in the markets? I remember we mapped around 500 start-ups that gave us a new lens on where the future was happening. And where we could potentially play a meaningful role considering the people, capabilities, and the desirable sensibilities of beer that we could bring to other categories."

Bionic partnered with the ZX team to discover growth Opportunity Areas (OAs) beyond beer including non-obvious consumer problems like health + wellness and product experiences, and then generated a roster of potential solutions in those OAs for the teams to pursue. Bionic entrepreneurs coached the teams through our Validate process, enabling them to run quick and cheap experiments to test whether any of those solutions had legs, and to determine which ones they should invest more time and money into before scaling the ideas.

The Solution the solution

With input from Bionic, the ZX Explore group established a variety of revolutionary product domains in the AB InBev fold, including:

  • Casual wine (e.g. Babe Wine)
  • Hard kombucha (e.g. Kombrewcha)
  • Canned cocktails (e.g. Cutwater Spirits)
  • Brewing co-products (e.g. barley protein)

Now confident in its ability to scope promising opportunities, ZX Ventures went on to acquire 
 e-commerce craft beer purveyor Beer Hawk and beer discovery and ratings app RateBeer. It made early investments in advanced technology solutions like Pensa Systems that measures out-of-stock and shelf compliance using drone, AI, and ML technology. As the team considered possible additions to its inorganic portfolio of bets, its members always considered how the larger company’s capabilities and know-how might support and amplify startups' early successes.

"Before I get involved with a category or company, I ask, 'Am I going to be able to make it grow faster and better? What is my platform and what assets can I bring to bear?'" Earp says. "If I really don't have any proprietary gifts that can help the category or company, then why get involved? We like to be in spaces where we can have a disproportionate impact."


A New Use for Spent Grains

Now eager to experiment outside of alcohol, the ZX Ventures' Explore team also began researching protein shakes.

This might sound surprising since protein is largely undesirable in beer. In fact, a key component of the brewing process involves separating protein and fiber from the sugar-rich starch in barley which is later fermented into beer. And yet our planet is hurtling toward an inevitable protein shortage, and plant-based protein has become a high-growth area. So when ZX Ventures recognized this, they moved quickly to create a gut-healthy, non-alcoholic protein drink, Canvas, which is made from the leftover fiber and protein produced during beer-making. This revolutionary process would allow it to upcycle its by-products and repurpose them into a nutritious and earth-friendly beverage. Canvas brought a sustainable, dairy-free, hipster-friendly, non-beer beverage into the AB InBev portfolio and opened up the aperture (and appetite) for further exploration in the by-products space.

And the entire ZX portfolio continues to grow. In just a few short years, Earp's innovation-obsessed team has reached far beyond craft brews and beer-centric experiences. Since its launch in 2015, ZX Ventures has gone from $0 to more than $1 billion in revenue.

The Insight the insight

Much of that revenue growth has come from the sheer breadth of the company's portfolio. The success of ZX Ventures offers hard evidence that building a huge portfolio filled with dozens of bets is a sound and viable strategy. At Bionic we often coach our partners to think bigger. Don't start small and wait until your single bet proves out. Place more bets, and place them now.

Additionally, the framework that ZX used to guide new business ideas from seed to launch to grow is a key component of Bionic’s Growth OS. We're thrilled to see them incorporate this framework into the core business of AB InBev as they work to build significant new revenue for the organization. With a fleet of innovative teams eager to uncover and respond to consumer needs, this legacy company is now focused on the future.

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