A cool hunter is someone whose job is to search out the latest trends and developments in a specific genre — fashion, music, art, culture or technology — and make predictions about how relevant that trend or development will be within the grand scheme. Well, at least within their specific environment.

Dr. Shell Huang is Coca-Cola’s top technology cool hunter. She’s the Senior Director of the External Technology Assessment and Acquisition, or ETA, program. Dr. Huang and her team seek out and identify the latest — and sometimes even undiscovered — technologies that the company can use to improve the efficiency, productivity and quality of its products. “Sometimes we don’t even know we’ve found something that Coke can use,” admits Shell. “That’s what makes this job so fun.”

The Search for New Tech

The most important talent of any cool hunter is the ability to understand what is happening in their field and connect the “dots”. In the case of the ETA team, that means being able to figure out which of the technologies it evaluates is going to be important for Coca-Cola and making sure they have a good idea about where trends are coming from. “Then you at least have a chance at influencing their movement,” says Huang.

Isn’t that the job of research and development? Yes, and ETA is part of Coke’s Global R&D department. But unlike the other divisions, ETA isn’t confined with a set of walls. They focus on outside the box, looking for innovative solutions to Coke’s problems. “Instead of building a lot of internal capabilities, we try to increase our effort to leverage external R&D to shorten a product’s time to market and accelerate our innovation,” says Huang. “The world is changing very fast, and a lot of innovation is driven by the outside world. So it’s important for Coke that we connect with the external technologies and innovations, collaborate with them to help our internal innovations. If we don’t do this, we would be behind or obsolete. If we do this, we will keep our competitiveness in the market and really provide the product to meet our changing consumer needs.”

The process starts with a list of needs or “challenges” that the solutions would enhance and accelerate innovation at Coke. “We take those needs to external universities, research institutes or technology companies, such as MIT’s Media Lab, Georgia Tech’s various programs and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research in Singapore (A*Star), to see if any technologies exist or are being developed that can meet our challenges,” says Huang. “It allows us to tap into the 99.99 percent of brains in the world not working for Coca-Cola.”

And ETA looks at almost any technology that can help Coca-Cola’s business in the physical world — anything that can help add value to the company. That includes new ingredients, new beverage delivering technologies, new packaging materials, new water-treatment technologies and new beverage-processing technologies like sterilization and pasteurization of beverages. “It’s very broad territory to be in,” says Huang.

In many cases, the technologies and innovations were initially made for other industries, in other fields for other applications. “ETA’s role is to connect the dots,” say Huang. “We would go out to look at the technology that may be valid for some other use but take that in for Coca-Cola use. That is, in short, what we do for ETA.”

Once those “dots” are connected, the technology is assessed by subject-matter experts to determine if it can deliver what Coke needs it to deliver. And then it’s scrutinized again by the ETA Advisory Board, which is comprised of Coca-Cola’s regional R&D heads, who are connected with their business unit, marketing and supply chain.

Successes for ETA

Examples of the achievements of ETA can be found with these recent innovations:

3M Technologies Light Tube Technology. This technology creates new and improved lighting for coolers and while that may seem like a small, thing, Huang explains why it means so much. “Immediate consumption is vital to growing our business,” she says. “The Coca-Cola technical community is supporting this effort through several projects that will enable the company to double our chilled space without increasing our carbon footprint. Reduction of energy for our coolers is one of the critical elements for reaching this goal.

“Consumer research and market trials have repeatedly demonstrated that brighter, uniform lighting sells more beverages, typically 5-9 percent more per cooler. Brighter lightening sells more drinks, but brighter lights equates to more energy usage. LED lighting has already been a key contributor towards reducing our overall energy consumption, as well as the operational benefits of reduced service costs. LED lighting alone is not the only solution and may not be the best solution.

“Through our ETA partnership with 3M, we have seen that there are, in fact, solutions which achieve brighter and more uniform lighting, while actually reducing energy. The 3M Light Tube is one of these. When properly integrated into a cooler’s design, it will reduce total energy by as much as 6-12 percent while also meeting our 150lux and global light uniformity recommendation” explains Huang.

It works like this: The 3M Light Tube consists of a multilayer total-reflection film, placed inside a polycarbonate tube with only two LED lights mounted on each end. The whole kit-and-caboodle is then mounted in the door of a cooler. The films are designed to uniformly light the area of the cooler where needed, and since the LED light source is mounted outside the chill zone, the heat generated from a light source is eliminated.

Benefit to Coke: Increased lighting within the cooler without affecting beverage temperature, as well as reduced energy costs, carbon footprint, and wear and tear on the cooler compressor.

Lumense Nano Sensing Technology. ETA found this technology from their partnership with Georgia Tech and their incubator for Startup companies. The technology was initially developed by GT to detect trace amounts of molecules in the air for security and anti-terrorism purposes funded by government funding. A tiny amount of a special polymer is placed on a glass plate the size of a fingernail. The polymer then bonds with target molecules, which are bombarded with a laser, allowing the user to identify any contaminants in the air.

Benefit to Coke: Dr. Huang’s ETA team thought if the technology could find these molecules in the air, maybe it could also detect a trace amount of contaminant molecules in CO2, which is used to carbonate Coke’s beverages. Explains Mike Slawson, co-founder and CEO of Lumense, “If there’s a trace amount of contaminants in the stream that can cause a problem with the product, those contaminants can cause product to be recalled.” This technology has potential to significantly reduce the cost and improve the efficiency of CO2 quality control for our system.

Merlin Mobility Augmented Reality Technology. This technology was found by ETA through their partnership with Georgia Tech and their incubator for startup companies. The most recognizable example of augmented reality can be seen on television during NFL games with the yellow line that is used to illuminate first-down markers. Using this technology, which superimposes information over a real-world background, Merlin develops 3D interactive applications to address the time-wasting villains we encounter every day: assembling a piece of furniture with little or no written instructions, fixing a broken vending machine or picking out the faucet that would best match the bathroom sink and avoid the inconvenience of a return.

Benefits to Coke: There are many uses, says Merlin CEO Margaret Martin. For example, it can act as a training tool. Maintenance people can see how to properly fix a cooler using information superimposed onto video or equipment images. Another current use: Coke salespeople can show a customer how a particular type of drink cooler will look in a chosen spot in their establishment and let them choose what mix of drinks they want to use to fill it up. “It saves time, money and manpower,” says Martin.

What’s next for ETA? Dr. Huang says there a many technologies in ETA pipeline, which can’t be disclosed just yet, but you can bet they will be cool.