Chobani incubator director Jackie Miller
Chobani has continued its strategy of supporting innovative brands with its latest incubator initiative, which has a focus on food tech and ag-tech start-ups.
Called the Food Tech Residency, the scheme marks Chobani’s fourth incubator and sees the dairy company respond to pressing issues within the food and beverage industry. For example, it will focus on finding ways to react to food safety issues in real time or develop packaging materials to increase shelf life and reduce food waste.
Jackie Miller, incubator director at Chobani, spoke with FoodBev about the qualities the company is looking for in applicants and how such initiatives can propel new brands to success, while also having a positive social impact.
In Chobani’s three other incubator programmes the company has focused on food, beverage and dairy start-ups. Why are you expanding into the food tech and ag-tech space?
Since launching the Chobani Incubator programme in 2016, we’ve helped emerging natural food and beverage start-ups disrupt the food system and make delicious, nutritious, natural food more accessible through equity-free investment and a strong focus on mentorship. We’re proud of the success the companies are seeing, be it through expanded distribution, revenue growth or other important metrics. For example, since completing the programme, our Chobani Incubator alumni on average achieved more than 3x distribution growth.
Our mission is better food for more people, and as a consumer brand, we are eager to support the next generation of like-minded brands. But we also know that there are challenges all along the food value chain – brands are only one part of the ecosystem. As a food maker on the front lines of the supply chain, Chobani wants to give those with technical expertise access to our knowledge, network and resources to build better innovative solutions that can make an impact on food systems at scale.
In previous schemes Chobani has had hundreds of applicants. What stand-out qualities are you looking for in potential brands?
Our spring 2018 class was the incubator’s largest class yet, with nine start-ups and the largest submission of applications ever, with 650 applications – a 30% increase from last year.
When reviewing applications, we’re looking for early stage, purpose-driven emerging natural food and beverage start-ups who have a vision that’s much like our own food philosophy. We are looking for food companies that are creating delicious, nutritious, natural and accessible food, who also have the heart and passion to deliver good food to more people in a sustainable way with positive social impact.
It wasn’t so long that Hamdi Ulukaya was creating the Chobani brand from scratch. How do his experiences help you select and mentor brands?
One of the key points of differentiation that sets the Chobani Incubator apart is its emphasis on mentorship throughout the four-month programme. Chobani founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya is extremely passionate about this programme and plays a key role in the process. Hamdi selects all final participants, makes personalised phone calls to welcome mentees to the incubator, and spends time getting to know each company during the programme. We find this level of mentor engagement, along with our equity-free investment model, to be one of the biggest differentiators between our programme and other incubators in the space.
Chobani said that an emphasis on mentorship throughout the four-month incubator sets it apart from other, similar programmes
What are some of the challenges you aim to tackle as part of the latest incubator?
We believe there are many opportunities to build better food tech solutions with the Food Tech Residency, whether it’s a more effective way to react to food safety issues in real time or how to innovate packaging materials to increase shelf life and reduce food waste. The goal of the Food Tech Residency is to test and improve these solutions so they can be implemented at scale.
How can selected start-ups hope to grow during the initiative? Are there also benefits for Chobani employees working alongside up-and-coming brands?
This four-month programme will bring tech entrepreneurs to the front lines of food manufacturing to enable them to tap into our operations, supply chain, logistics and quality assurance network and expertise to build innovative solutions to the industry’s biggest challenges. These entrepreneurs will also learn from each other throughout the programme via peer mentoring and networking. We believe that together we can challenge the food industry, improve broken systems and make a difference. At our core, we still operate with a start-up mentality and are always learning from other innovators.
Previous selected brands create products as varied as crystallised tea and craft ginger beer. What have been some of the success stories from participants?
Since completing the programme, Chobani incubator alumni have on average achieved more than 3x distribution growth. The start-ups have launched a collective 30 new SKUs. Four participants have launched successful rebrands, including cold press juice maker Misfit Juicery and whole grain-based frozen entrée maker Grainful. And Rumi Spice, which imports saffron products from Afghanistan, now employs over 1,900 women in its processing centre in that country.
Large companies have increasingly invested in incubator programmes in recent years. How do you see the trend continuing in the future?
At Chobani, we set out to create a different kind of incubator programme – one that is equity-free and founder-focused, with no strings attached. We wanted to extend our mission beyond our own products by helping socially responsible food and beverage entrepreneurs make their products more widely available. We hope other companies out there do the same and use incubators as a force to change the way business is done.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2018