Coca-Cola Shutters its Founders Initiative, Which Backed Startups

By Scott Kirsner |  December 29, 2016

Coca-Cola has shut down its Founders program, which sought to work with entrepreneurs and invest in startups that would benefit the beverage giant in some way. The initiative was launched in 2013, and since then has backed eight companies, including Wonolo, an on-demand staffing startup, and Hivery, a predictive analytics venture that can optimize pricing and selection in vending machines.

David Butler, the former head of Coca-Cola Founders. (Photo by Sterling Graves for InnoLead.)

With the end of the program, two executives have departed: David Butler, formerly VP of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and Ross Kimbel, Global Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. (We interviewed Butler in October 2013.)

Coca-Cola spokesman Petro Kakur says that the company will continue to manage relationships with startups that it has already funded, but going forward those relationships will be overseen by the company’s mergers and acquisitions team. “These startups continue to generate benefit to the company,” Kakur explained in an e-mail. “We will not, however, fund new start-ups or conduct additional funding through Founders.” One of the better-funded startups to come through the program is Wonolo, a mobile app that connects workers with short-term gigs. The San Francisco company raised $5.7 million earlier this year.

“First, we partner with experienced entrepreneurs around the world. Then we immerse them in the power of Coca-Cola — our relationships, resources, and reach — before they create a startup. Together we focus on big problems lots of people have. Using lean startup methods, they grow the startup with Coca-Cola as the lead backer. Once the business model is proven, Coca-Cola becomes a minority shareholder. We collaborate from the very start to create more speed, more scale, and more impact. This model creates a win-win for everyone. Founders are given an unfair advantage through the power of Coca-Cola and the opportunity to do what most can only dream about.”

Coca-Cola announced earlier in December that chief executive Muhtar Kent will step down as CEO after eight years. Chief Operating Officer James Quincey will replace Kent in May of 2017. The shut-down of Coca-Cola Founders is part of a shift in focus back to the core business, according to one source.

Kakur says, “This does not change our holistic approach to innovation at Coca-Cola, which is to imbed innovation across our functions and throughout our global business units.”