Investing in the Future of Food: Chobani helps startups navigate food safety, picking partners and more

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Investing in the Future of Food, Chobani, incubator, Startup company, Entrepreneurship

Earlier this week, Chobani put out an open call for “big-hearted food and beverage startups” that make delicious, nutritious, natural and affordable food to help it “take on the broken food system” by participating in the fifth cohort of its highly competitive four-month incubator program.

The uniquely founder-focused, no-strings-attached incubator launched two years ago as a way for Chobani’s founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya “to pay it forward”​ to like-minded entrepreneurs who share his mission to “democratize”​ access to better food in America by sharing the lessons he learned with the hope that they might avoid some of the mistakes he made and grow more quickly, according to Chobani's Chief Marketing and Commercial Officer Peter McGuinness.

In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Investing in the Future of Food​, McGuinness explains what sets Chobani’s incubator apart from other incubators, what it looks for in applicants and what entrepreneurs who make it in the program can expect.

A Mission-focused incubator

Unlike some incubators and accelerators managed by large food and beverage brands, Chobani’s incubator wasn’t founded as a way to connect with cutting edge innovators. Rather, McGuinness explains it is a founder-led and founder-focused incubator created to share lessons learned and give a leg-up to new entrepreneurs who share the same vision of making healthier food available to the masses.

The incubators mission, along with a the offer of a no-strings-attached grant and advice from someone who has been there before attracts between 400 and 500 applications for each class, McGuinness said, noting, “the biggest challenge here is how do we pick five to seven when there is 70 great companies.”

Part of how the Chobani team picks is by looking for basic criteria, including if the product is delicious, nutritious, natural and affordable. Next, it evaluates if the brand is ‘interesting,’​ and then whether the founders “have their mindset in the right place, and have their heart in the right place to do the right thing,” ​he said.

The company also is drawn to entrepreneurs who are charismatic and passionate, who have a balance of confidence and humility, and are creative, curious and entrepreneurial, McGuinness said.

Top focuses of Chobani's incubator

The lucky few who make the cut and are selected to participate in Chobani’s fifth incubator cohort can expect a crash course on what it takes to succeed, including an emphasis on food safety, selecting the right business partners, taking smart risks, preserving culture, and of course developing the best possible branding.

“When you are small and vulnerable, there are a few things that can hurt a brand – quality and cash,”​ which is why the incubator teaches participants not to sacrifice food safety and quality and to choose business partners wisely, McGuinness said.

Participants also will learn how to balance risk and reward, McGuinness said, explaining that if a company takes too many risks “you get yourself in to trouble,”​ but “if you under index on courage and risk taking, you are not an entrepreneur, you are under achieving.”

Chobani also prepares participants for growing pains as they scale and start to higher “outsiders,”​ who might have worked at “those big, bad food companies,”​ McGuinness said. He noted that entrepreneurs need to know how to protect their hearts and souls, not lose their vision and protect their culture as they expand and face increasing pressures.

Finally, McGuinness said, the incubator helps young brands maximize the impact of their packaging, positioning and claims so that their message and value is clear on shelf.

“A lot of these startup companies don’t have a huge marketing budgets and advertising budgets to create all that consumer pull, so actually the shelf is your advertising campaign. So, we talk a lot about branding”​ and how to make it both personal to the founder and consumer friendly and clear, he said.

Entrepreneurs who think they are a good fit and have what it takes to beat the competition, can apply online​ for a slot in Chobani’s fifth incubator class through Jan. 31.

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