Collaboration is critical to scale innovation in today’s world as no company can solve sustainability challenges alone.

Just ten years ago, corporates weren’t even speaking about sustainability, and most of the focus was on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). At that time, reputation was the main growth driver, and companies used to have philanthropic agendas.

Yet today, CSR and a philanthropic approach are definitely not enough anymore. We are amid a climate and waste crisis with massive biodiversity loss. In this scenario, the actual enabler of growth has changed and can only be sustainability. In other words, there’s no chance for a corporate that doesn't incorporate sustainability within its DNA today to be competitive and successful in this century.

Of course, sustainability brings enormous and complex challenges to the table, e.g., zero waste, zero emissions, and resource efficiency. The only way to successfully face and deal with them is through collaboration- even with competitors. Yet putting the competition aside is anything but easy. How to do that?

At our recent Innov8rs Connect on Climate and SDGs, Carolina Garcia Arbeláez – Global Sustainability and Innovation Director at Anheuser-Busch InBev – shared how four of the largest corporates in the world have partnered to boost sustainable innovation and build a brighter, more sustainable future together. Here’s a summary of what we have learned.

Collaborating (And Innovating) For A Better World: The Accelerator 100+

Collaboration with competitors is not impossible as it might seem. When it comes to sustainability, most corporates face the same challenges, e.g., decarbonizing the value chains, reaching zero net emissions, scaling renewable energy, having circular packaging, and so on. In other words, the foundations to collaborate and tackle sustainability-related issues together are already there.

To better understand this point, let’s take a look at AB InBev’s path to sustainability and the reasons that led this corporate to collaborate with other innovators first and some of its major competitors then. Back in 2018, AB InBev – the world's largest beer brewer by both volume and revenue – set the following four “Global Sustainability Goals”:

1. By 2025, 100% of our direct farmers will be skilled, connected, and financially empowered.
2. By 2025, 100% of our communities in high-stress areas will have measurably improved water availability and quality.
3. By 2025, 100% of our product will be in packaging that is returnable or made from majority recycled content.
4. By 2025, 100% of our purchased electricity will be from renewable sources, and we will have a 25% reduction in CO2 emissions across our value chain.

However, although AB InBev employs over 150,000 people, they didn't have all the expertise, solutions, and answers to meet these goals in time, successfully, and efficiently.

In order to fill this gap, the company created a specific program to reach out to top-notch innovators and start-ups that could deliver breakthrough advancements across five key sustainability pillars: water stewardship, smart agriculture, circular packaging, climate action, and upcycling.

And so, in 2018, the 100+ Accelerator was built within AB InBev. In its first two cohorts – i.e., calls for applications based on specific challenges – more than half of the start-ups secured long-term contracts with the company. The true turning point came in 2021 when The Coca-Cola Company, Colgate-Palmolive Company, and Unilever joined AB InBev’s 100+ Accelerator to boost, fund, and pilot sustainable innovation in their supply chains.

Because of the 100+ Accelerator success, these three corporates decided they didn't want to reinvent the wheel but wanted to partner with AB InBev. The ultimate goal hasn’t changed: collaborating to overhaul supply chains and scale innovative solutions to find solutions for some of the most pressing environmental and social challenges.

Today 100+ Accelerator is equity free and offers expert training, mentorship, preferred payment terms, access to tools, and funding. It gives the most innovative start-ups up to $100,000 to fund a pilot and helps them validate their solution within AB InBev, Coca-Cola Company, Colgate-Palmolive Company, and Unilever value chains. In the third joint cohort, 35 start-ups have been selected, 18 of which are women-founded.

Collaboration: Lessons Learned And Benefits

AB InBev, The Coca-Cola Company, Colgate-Palmolive Company, and Unilever are competitors. There’s no doubt about that. Yet they share the same sustainability challenges, which is why they let go of the competition. In other words, they are partnering to deliver on their own sustainability goals faster and eventually become the leading companies they want to be.

“We understand that new technologies and innovations are developed quickly, and the 100+ Accelerator can bring us all closer to that cutting edge. We can work together to scale game-changing solutions and accelerate action”.

The results of their collaboration show that such a mindset shift – i.e., putting aside rivalry and pooling efforts to achieve a higher goal – can lead to at least four benefits: joint innovation, cost efficiencies, leapfrogging, and different use cases. To give us a more precise overview of what these benefits mean for the four companies, Carolina discussed and shared some examples.

1. Joint Innovation

For some, innovation means bringing new products or services to market. For others, innovation is about coming up with radically new ideas and developing them. However, innovation, whatever its form and definition, always benefits from involving partners. Known as "joint innovation", it speeds up the overall innovation process. And the products Nafigate and Mi Terro are working on together with Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever are great examples of how beneficial joint innovation can be:

  • Nafigate, a start-up from the Czech Republic, creates a biopolymer out of AB InBev's brewery spent grain, a by-product generated from the beer-brewing process. This spent grain-based biopolymer has both UV protection and deodorant capacities. In its pilot, Nafigate works with Colgate-Palmolive to create a compact powder deodorant and UV protection with zinc oxide.
  • On its side, Mi Terro, a Chinese start-up, repurposes spent grain into flexible and rigid packaging materials creating the world's first plant protein thermoplastic. The pilot aims to create a 100% biobased film soluble in water, edible, and home compostable to be used in Unilever's detergent pods.

2. Cost Efficiencies

Joining forces dramatically reduces the costs that a single company would incur if they were piloting on their own. For instance:

  • V-Chiller, a start-up based in Hungary, produces an eco-friendly, on-demand cooling technology for beverages at the point of sale, offering lower energy consumption and no environmental impact. Thanks to the 100+ Accelerator, AB InBev and Coca-Cola are piloting with V-Chiller and reducing costs by 30%.
  • Chanzi is an African start-up that uses AB InBev's and Unilever's waste to feed their black soldier flies and produce high-value protein for aquafeed and poultry. The joint pilot that Chanzi is doing with AB InBev and Unilever aims to replicate Chanzi's site design and concept in Tanzania, Kenia, and South Africa. And this goal is far too ambitious and expensive for a single company.

3. Leapfrogging

If all companies did the same tests with the same start-up, it would be a waste of time. The secret of success is sharing all you have learned during the pilot so that the other partner(s) can test and implement the same innovation quickly:

  • H2Ok Innovations is an American IoT-enabled analytics platform providing data-driven optimization of industrial liquid systems for manufacturing. They began their pilot with Unilever, and the learning curve was complex, but now they're piloting smoothly with Coca-Cola.

4. Different Use Cases

Piloting with the same start-up different use cases and sharing learnings afterward is another essential benefit:

  • Solutum is an Israeli-based start-up that produces soluble, biodegradable packaging. Solutum material dissolves in water at ambient temperature after a predetermined delay time. It then fully biodegrades in CO2, H20, and biomass, leaving no toxic residue or microplastics. Colgate-Palmolive is testing this technology to design and manufacture eco-friendly, water-soluble, and biodegradable dental kit bags to replace current PE bags. In the meantime, AB InBev is testing this technology's suitability as stretch wrap used as secondary or tertiary packaging for Corona beers.

Even though every corporate can set ambitious sustainability goals, no one can achieve them all alone. Since 2021, AB InBev, The Coca-Cola Company, Colgate-Palmolive Company, and Unilever have recognized the need to combine efforts to develop and scale new, innovative solutions geared towards sustainability.

Through the 100+ Accelerator, they are piloting several innovations with 35 start-ups to scale, transform, lower the prices, and ultimately accelerate that innovation and sustainability transformation we all urgently need. The key to success is twofold: not to compete with each other (only through partnering corporates can face these challenges) and to divide, share learnings, and conquer.

The good news is that any corporate can replicate such a way of collaborating. Even better, the Accelerator 100+ is not only a platform for Unilever, Coca-Cola, AB InBev, and Colgate-Palmolive. The four companies want it to become a platform of innovation that other corporations can join.

Of course, lots of challenges are just around the corner. Among all, taking the risk of failure certainly strains collaboration strength. Even though the selection process is strict and many experts are involved, they are still start-ups. And they might not reach the KPIs and fail. Being part of these programs means also accepting that you can have rising stars that will bring you millions of dollars in savings, as well as start-ups where the $100,000 pilot will not be a success. Corporates must tolerate this evidence.