Through July 2, Chobani for the first time is accepting applications from food tech startups to participate in its incubator program, which is currently recruiting its fourth class and until now has focused solely on early stage packaged food and beverage manufacturing companies that share its mission to make better food more accessible.
“We have had such great success with the incubator program to date … in terms of helping startup food and beverage manufacturers gain exciting distribution and revenue growth, launch rebrands and make key hires,” Chobani Incubator Director Jackie Miller told FoodNavigator-USA.
But, she added, even as the program’s alumni achieved on average more than three times distribution growth, launched a collective 30 new better-for-you stock-keeping-units, expanded their workforce and improved their branding, Chobani thought it could do more to support its mission and early stage companies at the same time.
“We kept thinking more about not just the food, but the supply chain and how while there are a ton of great emerging brands out there that are making healthier products and making them more accessible, there also are all kinds of places along the supply chain where there are a lot of challenges” and not enough solutions, she said.
“We know that tech has the power to disrupt all different sectors and industries, and we are hoping that” by creating a Food Tech Residency “Chobani can serve as a bridge between the world of technical solutions and tools and the realities on the ground of making food at scale and getting it in people’s hands,” she added.
Tackling a variety of challenges
To do this, Miller said, Chobani is “pretty open ended” in terms of the food tech and ag tech companies it is willing to bring into the residency’s first cohort in September, but that “what really drives us and the way we will probably approach it is challenges that are particularly important to us around sustainability and fighting waste, including water waste, food waste and packaging waste.”
This might include ideas for how to sanitize lines and equipment with less water or lower a company’s carbon footprint. Or it might be new ideas for new ingredients, formulations and packaging materials to reduce food waste.
Chobani also will place a heavy emphasis on food safety and traceability, including “technology that has incredible potential to improve and make more efficient our traceability for a lot of the ingredients we are working with and process,” Miller said.
She explained that Chobani has always placed a premium on food safety and it is looking for ways to react to concerns in real time and to reduce the time it takes to return quality and safety test results.
Another focus area will be around cold chain and improving the last mile for delivery, especially as more consumers embrace ecommerce as a viable way to purchase food and beverages, she said.
“Those are just a few examples of the challenges, but part of the exciting thing about Chobani’s role is we can help companies refine their ideas and even test and pilot their platform tools and solutions, which is a real added value” for young tech companies that struggle to test their concepts in the real world, Miller said.
‘Problem oriented entrepreneurs’ wanted
While the residency is focused on finding solutions to challenges, Chobani wants to bring in entrepreneurs who are “problem oriented … rather than solution oriented,” Miller said.
She explains that Chobani wants to collaborate with company founders and teams that “can truly identify the problem and then build a solution that is better than anything else out there. These are entrepreneurs who can find pain points, they talk to actual potential users or consumers and identify that hey, all the other solutions out there are not doing it well enough.”
Entrepreneurs who are problem-focused also tend to be motivated enough to do all their homework around finding what different stakeholders need and then building and testing something that will address that, Miller said.
The other half of how Chobani will evaluate applicants is based on how it can add value to what the entrepreneur is doing already, she added.
“We want to make good use of everyone’s time and make sure we are making a difference,” she said.
A custom-tailored program
Part of making that difference will be crafting a curriculum that specifically addresses the needs of the selected applicants, Miller said.
This will include visiting Chobani’s plant, working with its experts, and when possible sharing a classroom with entrepreneurs from the food and beverage manufacturing side of the incubator to help deepen food and ag tech companies’ understanding of what challenges manufacturers face.
The program also likely will include joint workshops with retailers to understand what challenges they face and how technology could help address those, Miller added.
Chobani’s efforts to help startups are not completely altruistic, Miller acknowledged.
She explained that as a still relatively young company itself, Chobani “craves having kind of scrappy, emerging brands and innovators around us as that makes us better too. So, you can call that self-serving, but it also is about keeping in touch with what some of these innovations are, helping them grow and having a clubhouse or gathering for food innovators across the board to help make everyone better.”
She also noted, “one great outcome for food tech companies may be that Chobani could become a customer down the line or connect them with potential customers.”
Ultimately, though, she said, Chobani is looking to create a network and to share its “secret sauce” to help propel innovative solutions forward.