Investing in the Future of Food

Innovations highlighting milk’s functional benefits could score $650,000 in prizes from Real California Milk Excelerator

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Investing in the Future of Food Milk Dairy Functional food market

While most Americans know dairy milk can help growing children build strong bones and healthy bodies, they may not realize it also can help athletes and everyday people of all ages perform better and recover faster – something the California Milk Advisory Board and the innovation consultancy VentureFuel hope to change through their third annual dairy innovation competition.

Seeking applicants now through June 25, the Shark Tank-esque Real California Milk Excelerator​ is offering up to $650,000 in prizes for early-stage, high-growth potential dairy innovations that not only showcase cow milk’s performance and recovery benefits, but also can open the door for California dairy farmers to access the fast-growing functional foods market, which is projected to reach more than $275bn globally by 2025.

“We’re looking for products that have functional benefits. In the first case, related to focus, energy, endurance, strength – those kinds of things are more performance oriented. And then for recovery, it’s more about rejuvenation, relaxation, gut health and even sleep,”​ John Talbot, CEO of CMAB, told FoodNavigator-USA.

He explained the competition is focused on functional benefits because consumers increasingly are looking for more from their foods and beverages than just taste – a trend accelerated by the pandemic and the desire to treat food as medicine.

Beyond performance and recovery, the competition is looking for early stage ideas or products in market that currently have less than $1m in sales to date, added Fred Schonenberg, founder of VentureFuel, Inc.

“One of the most exciting prize packages”

To help scale innovations that fill this bill, the Real California Milk Excelerator is offering a suite of prizes that will accelerate development without diluting businesses.

“A lot of times in these programs, someone is taking a little less than 10% of your company to enter, which is a huge chunk of your business, and if you’re a really serious entrepreneur that is usually not of interest,”​ said Schonenberg, adding that the Excelerator doesn’t do this because it wants entrepreneurs to grow their own businesses.

“So we purposefully decided to focus on providing prizing that relates to what CMAB does, which is marketing support,”​ he said, noting first place is $150,000 in prizing, second is $100,000 in prizing and then each of the 12 semi-finalists will receive a stipend to help them perfect marketing, packaging, consumer research and driving sales.

“There’s over $650,000 worth of awards that are given, but for entrepreneurs who are listening the most exciting thing here is every dollar spent goes toward accelerating your business as well as the fact that it is not eating into your equity,”​ he added.

Schonenberg also noted the competition is about more than funds – it also is about mentorship and creating a supportive network of executives from some of the largest food and beverage companies that will help entrepreneurs “get from wherever they are to where they want to be really quickly.”

The entire program is remote, which allows entrepreneurs to benefit from the Excelerator but also continue to focus on their business, he added.

Selecting winners is ‘part art and science’

To ensure competitors will make the most of the funds and resources available through the program, they must pass through a rigorous review process and tournament style pitch-competition.

“It’s part art and science,”​ and involves learning about entrepreneurs’ missions, current scale and traction, funding and ultimate goals, but then, of course, also taste, Schonenberg said.

In mid-July, judges will announce 12 semi-finalists who will complete a mentorship program before competing in a live pitch Oct. 26 and Oct. 27 in the run up the final competition Nov. 18.

Just because a company doesn’t win, doesn’t mean its idea isn’t promising – which is why this year the Real California Milk Excelerator created an incubator boot camp in which three of the finalists will “spin off” to further develop their products, explore the market and grow their business.

Recognizing the end of the competition is just the beginning for many participants, the Excelerator also added this year and private investor event to help connect entrepreneurs with retail buyers and potential investors.

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