LONDON – Coca-Cola is leveraging its unparalleled reach to develop, acquire and scale sustainable innovations, Global R&D Officer Nancy Quan said earlier this month at the FT Innovate conference.

Coke’s six R&D centers around the world are linked to external technology assessment and acquisition (ETA) hubs, which connects the company with partners, entrepreneurs, tech startups and university researchers.

“With the way the world is connected today and the speed in which new technologies are being developed, we can’t just sit in a silo in Atlanta – we’ve got to be out closer to the consumer and have a clear understanding of what’s happening in the world around us,” Quan said on Nov. 6. “We believe our reach is one of the key strengths of our business, so we spent time putting together what we call a ‘Distributed, Connected and Shared’ R&D model. The magic comes when everything connects – both internally and to the outside world.”

Quan, noting that her team is responsible for fueling innovation across products, ingredients, packaging, equipment and more, said the company is collaborating with partners in other industries. She shared several examples of how Coke’s global R&D community works seamlessly to create relevant innovations that deliver against the company’s Me (Well-being)/We (Community)/World (Environment) sustainability framework – from new products with natural sweeteners,from new products with natural sweeteners, to empowering communities through social enterprise, an initiative we call EKOCENTER, to PlantBottle Technology and energy-efficient coolers.

Each R&D center works closely with regional Coke marketing teams to address locally relevant needs and focuses on a certain area of innovation. “We are now reaching the world with a fuller understanding of the consumer,” Quan said. 

The network also enables Coke to apply a lead-market model to launch new innovations. For example, Minute Maid Pulpy Orange – a juice drink featuring real bits of fruit pulp – was developed at Coke’s Shanghai R&D center. The product rolled out in China before reaching other countries around the world.

According to Quan, the preferred skill-set of a Coca-Cola R&D professional has evolved beyond technical expertise in recent years.

“We’re looking for creative, globally minded talent who can influence, build relationships, network and get things done,” she explains. “They need an openness to take ideas from the outside, turn them into something for our business – and then convince our complex system to launch.”