How These Universities Are Incubating the Next Big Food Star

July 11, 2021
A university lab somewhere is nurturing the next Chobani, Impossible Burger or Blue Buffalo.

It used to be Food Processing would get a call or email every week saying something like: "Everybody loves my wife's fruit salsa. How do we get it into Walmart?"

It seems everybody wants to break into the food and beverage business these days—just watch an episode of Shark Tank. That eagerness comes despite U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers that say about half of all startups (in all business categories) fail by or during their fifth year.

Still, somewhere out there is the next Chobani, the next Blue Buffalo or Impossible Foods. Helping the next shooting star get launched has become an industry in itself, with municipalities, regional economic development groups, for-profit enterprises and even big food companies sponsoring incubators or accelerators of various sorts. For this article, we're focusing on university incubators.

"We work with larger, established food manufacturers as well as the person who wakes up in the morning with no food manufacturing experience and decides to start that hot sauce business they always wanted to start," says Joell Eifert, director of the Food Innovations Program at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (aka Virginia Tech).

"I believe the Food Innovations Program, like many food incubators, is one part of the village needed to assist an entrepreneur," she continues. "The process is fueled by the entrepreneurial spirit and the constant question of 'why not' and gains momentum from collaboration with many groups that assist with food processing, business planning and marketing assistance."

As the Food Marketing Institute wrote three years ago: "A number of land-grant universities, including Rutgers University, University of Nebraska, Virginia Tech and Cornell University, to name a few, have developed food innovation centers featuring incubator programs to help encourage local job creation in the food industry. These universities help bring food science, technology and innovation together."

Like a fermenter or bioreactor, an incubator can trigger the actions and reactions needed to culture a food concept into a product. Like a poultry incubator, it can protect and nurture that fledgling concept and its inventor till both are ready to fly on their own.

In addition to training and a working space that includes commercial kitchen equipment and probably a pilot plant, you'll rub elbows with a community of other entrepreneurs who also have that infectious spirit.

University incubators charge some kinds of fees, likely a registration fee plus a la carte fees for different services – a Nutrition Facts label analysis, rental of the pilot plant, maybe a student-like fee for taking a class. The range is $2,000 to $10,000 at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, according to Terry Howell Jr., executive director of The Food Processing Center there. At least the ones we talked to were not interested in funding these startups, even for an equity position – that's usually the domain of food company-owned accelerator programs.

"Starting a food business is no easy task. Before investing your time, money and effort, you should investigate the world you will be entering as a small business owner," warns one of the introductory essays on the website of the Virginia Tech program.

"The food you produce can have a direct effect on your customer’s health and safety. In fact, a food product that has been improperly processed could cause serious illness and even death," Virginia Tech continues. "Therefore, a business that makes and sells food must be knowledgeable of and comply with a number of complex regulations on the local, state and federal level. You will also need to learn about food processing, packaging and safe food-handling practices."

And much of that requires physical assets. Most incubators have several things in common:

  • Shared or private commercial kitchens
  • A pilot plant
  • Working and meeting space
  • Educational services, including classes and events
  • Business planning and support
  • Process authority
  • Referrals to outside services, such as contract manufacturing, packaging, distribution and financing

And all of that comes with the possibility of on-demand assistance from the professors and others in the college's food science department.

Rutgers: Making Impossible Foods possible

One of the best success stories comes out of Rutgers University of New Jersey. In April 2016, Impossible Foods founder Pat Brown was tinkering with a recipe for a better plant-based burger. He came to the Food Innovation Center at Rutgers to get connected to the right people in the food science and manufacturing spaces to turn the idea into a reality.

Early on, Brown believed one of the keys would be the use of legume hemoglobin or "heme," which makes Brown's burgers taste and even “bleed” like a real hamburger. Impossible Foods discovered how to create a plant-based heme through the fermentation of genetically engineered yeast. Impossible Foods discovered it, but Rutgers helped them produce it to scale and bring the burger to market.

After two years incubating the idea and producing small batches of Impossible Burgers from a 2,000-sq.-ft. refrigerated room at the Food Innovation Center’s Bridgeton, N.J., location, Impossible Foods moved to a large-scale manufacturing center in Oakland, Calif. The rest is recent history.

The Food Innovation Center at Rutgers University calls itself an incubator and accelerator. It supports "established early-stage entrepreneurs" and existing food companies from concept to commercialization. "We provide business, marketing, food safety, product design and scale up expertise within FDA- and USDA-certified facilities to help companies successfully build and grow their business," their mission states.

There actually are three Food Innovation Centers: in Bridgeton, Piscataway and New Brunswick. The first two offer similar R&D, product development and commercialization capabilities; the New Brunswick location is dedicated to analytical chemistry and mass spectrometry services.

Virginia Tech: Food Innovations Program

At Virginia Tech, the Food Innovations Program resides within the Dept. of Food Science and Technology on the main campus in Blacksburg, Va. "The program was developed specifically to support the food entrepreneur," says Eifert. "However, we have developed another responsibility to engage current operating businesses to develop innovative solutions to their existing issues."

The Virginia Tech Food Innovations Program provides assistance with starting a food business, including food analysis and nutrition label development as well as information and education on process scaling, food safety and food regulation.

Virginia Tech houses two pilot plants: a 7,100-sq.-ft. general food processing pilot plant and a 2,200-sq.-ft. food safety pilot plant, which is certified for use with biosafety level 2 (BSL2) human pathogens. Both provide unique process and product development support to education, researchers and industry. There's also a sensory evaluation laboratory, high-pressure processing plant and an aquaculture facility.

"Our facilities are not inspected to be used for manufacturing. Therefore, we refer them to contract manufacturers (co-packers), shared-use kitchens as well as other facilities to use for processing," says Eifert. "We can, however, provide trial runs for entrepreneurs that assist them in scaling and equipment/packaging choices."

The program provides assistance with starting a food business, including food analysis and nutrition label development as well as information and education on process scaling, food safety and food regulation.

"One of the main services we provide is that of process authority and food safety specialist," adds Eifert. "We provide analytical services but more importantly give them information and education so that they understand the implications of those test results. We also provide liaison assistance between the food business/entrepreneur and the regulatory agencies."

The Sensory Evaluation Laboratory "provides the basis for decisions from ingredients and packaging to flavor and marketing. Our capabilities include consumer, descriptive and discrimination research using quantitative and qualitative methods." Features include 10 individual panelist booths, a focus group/panel training room, controlled and isolated sample preparation laboratory, observational cameras with synchronous video recording software, facial expression analysis software and observational software for behavior and focus group analysis.

"I think what our program contributes most importantly is education," says Eifert. "That educational component can level the playing ground, enhancing understanding of food science, food processing and food safety, which allow for a more diverse community of viable entrepreneurs leading to safe and wholesome diverse food products into the market."

The program offers food testing services to help ensure food safety and regulatory compliance for new food products entering the market and can provide a nutrition facts panel for a product's label.

"I can’t [think of] a claim-to-fame food product, but we do have a following of businesses that have been working with us for years," she continues. "The Food Innovations Program has probably assisted more than 60% of the vendors at the [biennial] Virginia Food and Beverage Expo. It’s extremely gratifying to see the products on the market."

Nebraska: National Food Entrepreneur Program

Food science and manufacturing are key steps to the commercialization of a product. But truly novel products start with an entrepreneur, and that concept is at the heart of a program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Within its Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, UNL hosts The Food Processing Center. Established in 1983, the center is a multi-disciplinary resource that offers both technical and business development services under one roof. Also under that roof is the National Food Entrepreneur Program.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Food Processing Center was established in 1983 and includes a multi-disciplinary resource that offers both technical and business development services under one roof. Also under that roof is the National Food Entrepreneur Program.

The Recipe to Reality Seminar is the first phase of the National Food Entrepreneur Program. It provides a general overview of the many issues involved in developing a food manufacturing business.

"By attending Recipe to Reality, entrepreneurs gain in one day information that could take months to research on their own, knowledge on the basics of starting a food business. The seminar helps attendees understand the challenges of starting a food business and allows them to make an informed decision as to whether developing a business is the right choice for them."

Likely attendees are people interested in marketing a family recipe, individuals with a product idea or concept, producers considering adding value to an agricultural product and restaurateurs or chefs exploring the manufacturing of a house specialty.

Topics include market research and selection, product and process development, food regulatory issues and agencies, packaging and labeling, pricing and cost analysis, product introduction and sales, promotional materials, food safety and sanitation and business structure.

The next one is Aug. 14, with a registration deadline of July 31.

The entrepreneur program is one small part of UNL's food incubator efforts. "We have extensive pilot plants (including a dairy plant, extrusion and HPP, among other services), product development lab, sensory lab, analytical chemistry lab, microbiology lab, food properties testing lab and nutritional labeling services," says a spokesperson.

"We work with everyone from first-time entrepreneurs to established food companies—small to very large companies. When a project requires specialized expertise, we interact with the University of Nebraska's Food Science and Technology faculty as well as other university departments," she continues.

Services include applied research & engineering, food properties testing service, labeling & regulatory compliance, lab services, pilot plants, product development and sensory lab, as well as the National Food Entrepreneur Program.

Cornell: Uniquely Upstate New York

The Cornell Food Venture Center is part of the university's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, but it's split between the Ithaca, N.Y., main campus the Cornell AgriTech campus, 50 miles away in Geneva. It's also tied to the state-run New York State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture.

Given its upstate New York location, vinification (the conversion of grape juice into wine) is a specialty, as is craft brewing of all sorts (beer and hard ciders); so is high pressure processing (HPP). There also are programs for dairy, as the area has been a hotbed for yogurt development.

The Ithaca campus has the Food Product Innovation Lab and sensory lab; Geneva has a pilot plant, wine and beer labs and the HPP validation center.

The food science and manufacturing is handled by Cornell, but when it comes to business development issues, the state's Center of Excellence seamlessly gets involved.

"People come to us with a great idea for a food product or a recipe that's been in the family that they want to get onto a supermarket shelf, but they just don't know how to do it," says Catharine Young, executive director of the state Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture. In the collaboration with Cornell, "We are a full-service facility, where they can get everything from product development and food safety validation and testing to schedule processing to the business development side."

A menu of services includes lab analysis for pH, water activity and Brix measurement; process authority approval; resources for nutrition analysis, co-packers, packaging suppliers and shelf-life studies; regulatory compliance—registration and licensing for state and federal agencies; and the "Better process control school," a necessary certification for acidified and low-acid food manufacturers.

It keeps the region and the state of New York happy, too. Young says the combined efforts of her Center of Excellence and Cornell Food Venture Center in the past 18 months have created 300 jobs and realized an economic impact of $70 million.

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