The origin of AB InBev in Flanders goes back to the historic Den Hoorn – later Artois – brewery in Leuven in 1366. Many centuries of growth, innovation and mergers and acquisitions later, AB InBev serves up 630 beers in 150 countries. But the multinational’s headquarters and R&D center have remained in Leuven – and for good reason. “This has always been our home,” says Kristof Geutjens, senior corporate affairs manager. “There’s so much that keeps us here: the rich beer culture, the proximity of key markets, the presence of highly skilled talent and world-class institutions and the ceaseless support for and belief in innovation.”
There’s so much that keeps us in Flanders, from the rich beer culture and the proximity of key markets to the ceaseless support for innovation.
This dedication to innovation is exemplified by GITEC, AB InBev’s global R&D center in the city of Leuven. Since 2018, global incentive & subvention manager Esteban Martinez has been a member of the GITEC community. “Innovation at AB InBev entails many things, from experimenting with yeasts and discovering new flavor profiles, to optimizing production processes and achieving our sustainability goals,” explains Esteban. “All long-term and major innovation projects at AB InBev have one thing in common: they all start at GITEC.”
One remarkable example of the power of innovation at AB InBev became evident at the start of the COVID-19 crisis. Esteban: “In less than three weeks, we developed a way to use our excess ethanol to produce disinfectant gel in 23 countries.”
In the past, GITEC was more of a troubleshooting hub than a true innovation center. Today, however, it sets the global innovation agenda for the entire company and uses its resources – EUR 240 million in four years – to build a vast portfolio of patents. But despite its team of 120 highly skilled professionals and top-class research equipment, GITEC is far from the largest R&D center in the industry. So, how do they manage to get so much work done?
The answer, according to Esteban and Kristof, is collaboration. “We work together with lots of different companies and organizations,” Esteban explains. “For example, we have strong ties with the University of Leuven. In addition, we are always on the lookout for collaborations with Flanders’ knowledge centers and industry clusters. Think of imec – Flanders’ strategic research center for nanotech and digital innovation – as well as cluster organization Flanders’ FOOD and the VIL logistics institute.”
But it doesn’t end there. Esteban: “In fact, there are about 250 partners we work with regularly, from universities and key organizations to start-ups. We are very strongly embedded in Flanders’ innovation ecosystem.”
We work together with numerous companies and organizations, from universities and research centers to key organizations and start-ups.
GITEC also works with several government agencies, particularly Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship (VLAIO in Dutch). “It’s a great example of what Flanders is doing to support us in terms of direct support for innovation,” says Kristof. “VLAIO has helped us with funding for numerous projects, from digital printing to fermentation, and we’re constantly knocking on their door with new ideas and initiatives. This is because, apart from funding, VLAIO also provides an invaluable network of local and European partner companies and organizations.”
“All of this goes to show how much innovation is valued in Flanders,” Esteban adds. “As the largest brewer in the world, innovation is the only way we can grow and safeguard our position. But to innovate and transform innovation into value, a solid support network and a partner ecosystem is crucial – and that’s why we are at home in Flanders. That, and the beer, of course.”