Most large companies are terrified of disruption. At Radicle, we hear over and over again about how the accelerating rate of change driven by technology is making incumbents uncomfortable, increasing turmoil, and raising the risk of disruption to levels they’ve never seen before. Many large companies choose to stick their heads in the sand — to rely on their distribution and brand advantages to weather the storm of technological change.
But AB InBev is not most companies. It recognized early on that the best way to deal with the threat of disruption is to disrupt itself — before anyone else can. In this exclusive interview with Maisie Devine — an investor at ZX Ventures a global growth and innovation group within AB InBev — we’ll learn about her life and career, what she does at ZX, and how she thinks about disrupting AB InBev from the inside.
Maisie graduated with a degree in art and archeology from Princeton University, and then spent a few years at a digital advertising agency before starting her first startup, Savvy. She ran Savvy for a few years, before jumping to her current role with ZX ventures.
Can you tell me about how ZX thinks about innovation? And why they established your innovation group?
ZX Ventures came about because Carlos Brito our CEO realized that we were at risk of being disrupted by external companies, and the best way to defend against that was to actually set up a unit from within the company to disrupt it from inside.
So that’s why ZX Ventures was created: to really push the company and set it up to be successful for the next 100 years as opposed to resting on our laurels and become less relevant to future consumers than we are to consumers today.
The goal of our portfolio is to enable AB InBev products to be within arm’s reach for every consumer, any time, anywhere. So we’re primarily looking at technology to get our products to consumers faster, and more cost-effectively, so we’re able to cut pricing and costs, and also increase access to all of our products.
What do you think makes AB InBev different from other companies in the space when it comes to your innovation strategy?
ZX was formed to disrupt from the inside. And to really push boundaries and to be aggressive.
We’re trying to push boundaries, be aggressive, see opportunities early, and get the business involved alongside of us.
It seems like there might be a lot of politics involved with disrupting someone else’s business unit. How do you deal with that?
Our answer to that so far has been it’s great that ZX is set up outside of the core business because it insulates us to a certain degree. It allows us to invest in and grow businesses without feeling the pressure of the business units that they would be competing with, or having to hit the kind of numbers early on that a real AB InBev unit would have to hit.
And once we’ve built a business that’s grown to the point that it actually can be helpful to our business units, then we can come to them and say: “we have this turnkey solution — it fits in your market, it fits in your consumer needs, and it’s mature enough that it can meet your demands for scale.” And that works out really well for both AB InBev and our portfolio companies.
A good example of this is with a company ZX acquired called Hiball — they make energy drinks. AB InBev ran into a situation where Monster Energy drinks were pulled from our retail distribution portfolio, and we needed to replace them somehow. But rather than have to scramble around to find a new partner, the business unit came to us and we were able to say, “Actually, this isn’t a problem because we just acquired an energy drink company that will close this gap for you.”
So having this kind of internal disruption unit works out really well for everyone involved.
How do you currently conduct research on startups or identify new opportunities?
It’s about seeing a lot of different companies.
Sometimes we use the accelerator we run as a way to vet specific problems that we see within the business.
Sometimes we depend on some of our VC partners to feed us good deal flow. We’re also looking at all of the tech publications, we’re going to all of the other trade shows and expos, showcases, demo days.
We even have relationships with universities like MIT Media Lab and Princeton, and other accelerators in the space.
It’s kind of a huge funnel that we have using all of those different channels and then we evaluate the companies that come out of it on a very specific set of criteria and go forward with a very involved due diligence process.
Can you tell us about some of your portfolio companies?
We made an investment in a company called Starship — it’s a last mile delivery robot that basically takes beer right to your doorstep. The original founders of Skype are building it. It’s a way for customers to get beer on-demand at an extremely cost-effective price. Currently, on-demand delivery is really expensive but if we can do it with an automated robot we can really get that price down and make it seamless and cheap for our consumers
We made another investment in a company called Rappi which is a last-mile delivery platform and on-demand courier service in Latin America so they operate in places like Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina. It’s basically the Amazon of Latin America. They have everything you could possibly want on-demand in 45 minutes — beer, groceries, tickets, apparel. You can even get cash on-demand — so they’ll go to the ATM and bring you cash. And it solves a real problem for consumers in Latin America where there’s poor infrastructure which means that traffic is really bad and it can be hard to even get to the store and back in a reasonable amount of time. So for them it’s not a luxury it’s a necessity because it can take so long to do some of these tasks and errands without a service like this.
We also made an investment in a company called Foxtrot — they’re a dynamic routing technology that we’ve integrated into our logistics operation in South America that helps us to schedule and make trucking deliveries at optimized routes that fit the time constraints of the business that we’re delivering to. So it’s looking at traffic patterns, and what time windows that retailer can accept deliveries, and builds a delivery route that’s optimized for those constraints. And we’ve seen an enormous amount of cost-saving and time-savings from implementing that technology.
How does ZX add value to the companies you invest in?
Where we add value depends on the size of the company we’re investing in. So early on in the lifecycle of a company we can add value in terms of branding and marketing. We have a lot of expertise in-house for how to build brands and marketing campaigns and we can bring that to every company we invest in.
Later on in the company’s lifecycle, we can add a lot of value in terms of distribution strategy, operational expertise, safety optimization and stuff like that.
We also know that once a company is at a certain scale, we can add a lot of value because we can connect them to our own internal businesses as customers which I think is a big draw for a lot of our portfolio companies.
Radicle is category-defining research and information company built on understanding startups. Radicle Debriefs are 50–60 page reports and concise 45 minute, micro-conference in which our analysts present the key findings of a month-long deep dive into a selected startup sector, including first-hand perspectives derived from calls with startup founders, customer surveys, and data science frameworks.
Debriefs help customers more efficiently and better understand the problem spaces being attacked by disruptive startups, how startups compare, the market opportunity for new business models, and potential risks to incumbents. Debriefs are a prompt, catalyst and lens for thinking about the future of our customers businesses. Debriefs surface opportunities for partnership with and strategic investment in relevant startups.