How to manage an innovation portfolio: Alexandra Savona of ZX Ventures on mastering uncertainty

Highline Beta talks “venture shop” with Global Manager, Alexandra Savona, Global Manager overseeing early stage organic ventures at ZX Ventures, AB InBev’s disruptive growth and venture arm. Alexandra is focused on user-centric design across venture, innovation and brand, with a vast history in consumer products and digital experience, consumer research, insights, product development, innovation strategy, and marketing. We sat down with Alexandra to discuss AB InBev’s approach to innovation and continued success at ZX Ventures.

How do you define innovation at AB InBev?

We define innovation as connecting closely to the consumer, going after real problems and developing solutions that we can competitively deliver. At ZX Ventures, the disruptive venture growth arm of ABI, we’re operating in areas where we have higher levels of uncertainty vs. the core business. We’re the frontend pipeline for disruptive innovation at the company, and we’re over 1000 people strong.

Highline Beta has been a great asset in pushing us to always put the consumer first and live up to our company principle that “the consumer is the boss.” It can be very easy to solve our own problems as a business, or conflate consumers’ problems with our own, so the external push and validation helps us keep the consumer at the centre.

What are some of the core components of a good innovation strategy?

My focus is on the very early stages of innovation. With consumer centricity at the core, we take principles from lean startup, agile and design thinking, and leverage our best-in-class capabilities as a company. We’re getting out of the building, validating problems, developing solutions, testing them with consumers and iterating on the business model.

What is unique about the ZX Ventures model?

We’re operating within the framework of AB InBev, which can give us tremendous advantages when testing, developing and scaling these ventures. We have restaurants and breweries around the world where we can run pilots and leverage the data we collect. We have top-tier technologies, resources, and assets with economies of scale

How does ZX Ventures approach innovation?

In the past 4 years we’ve learned and changed our processes and ways of working. We have distance from ABI where things take a bit longer, and yet, we can take advantage of the amazing capabilities of the company as it develops and evolves. 

In the program we run with Highline Beta, we have the autonomy and license to operate the way we need to. Our eco-working space is two blocks away from ABI, so people can always get access to the expertise, mentorship and resources of our massive company.

Who comes up with the ideas?

We do open calls for consumer/business problems across the company, across every geography, every business area and every level of employee. Our Zxlerator team and senior leadership review all of the submissions, looking for the biggest and most disruptive opportunities globally, to align on the final cohort. The teams then work alongside interns to validate the problem, solution and business model, iterating constantly to build the best venture possible. After the teams pitch at Demo Day to executive leadership, and a room of internal investors, we then decide on funding on a business-by-business basis so the best ventures can launch in-market. 

Why is innovation hard?

It’s hard to do good consumer research and find “the truth.” How do you know what people do vs. what they say? Highline Beta has helped us build that muscle, but it takes a lot of practice to get there and build empathy with the consumer. Over the last 5 years of partnership we’ve come a long way. 

Who are your influences?

We try to take in a diverse number of perspectives. Obviously, we look at other CPGs, but it is interesting to see companies that are trying different things. We look at external accelerators and VCs to understand how different models work, and we always try to bring the best from the outside in, learn about how an external accelerator operates, and how to vet opportunity areas so we can continue building capacity.

How do you encourage innovation in your organization?

It’s happening across every aspect of the company right now. Our accelerator demo day is a big inspiration moment for the entire company, allowing us to be consumer centric and innovate. Within the core business we also run Innovation Weeks where we ideate in the zone. Highline Beta also helps us with our 100+ Sustainability mission-driven accelerator where we are partnering with innovative external startups to help us achieve our sustainability goals.

How do you manage an innovation portfolio?

We’re moving towards a VC approach – placing multiple bets in areas of higher uncertainty to fill the pipeline for the next 100 years, as opposed to big bets on smaller things that are more certain. This has implications for how we manage our ventures and our resource allocation to make sure we can be flexible and put funds toward the most promising opportunities.

Do you have questions for Highline Beta?

We would love to hear your questions about innovation, and any challenges you’re trying to solve as you kick off the next decade. Please email [email protected] The amazing corporate innovators and entrepreneurs in our network just might have the answers you’ve been looking for.

Make your inbox more interesting

be the first to hear from amazing startup founders and corporate innovators pushing the boundaries at Citi, Morneau Shepell, Bell, RBC, AB InBev, and more.