Product, Service & Design Innovation
‘Better Food for More People:’ Chobani Incubator Seeking Purpose-Driven Food Startups

Roughly a decade ago, Hamdi Ulukaya was just beginning his journey to popularize Greek yogurt in the United States as a healthier alternative to the sugar-loaded, artificial preservatives-filled cups and tubes of yogurt Americans were consuming. After 18 months of studying and recipe-testing, he launched Chobani in 2007. Now, the company is worth somewhere between $3 and 5 billion, and Greek yogurt makes up about half of the American yogurt market.

While this obviously marks wild success, Americans can be fickle with their favorite foods, and the yogurt market is no exception. Chobani has so far been able to keep up with products such as its “Flip” line, but is seeking to go beyond the white cups that made it famous. Knowing that the market was beginning to mature, the company announced it would launch the Chobani Food Incubator, a program for purpose-driven food startups. The time is finally here – applications are closing soon!

Entrepreneurs who share Chobani’s mission to “provide better food to more people,” seeking to offer affordable products made using only natural ingredients, are encouraged to apply for the program by August 10, 2016. The Chobani Food Incubator is seeking companies with heart and passion that are creating “delicious, nutritious, natural, accessible food,” at an affordable price for all. Finalists will be notified on or before September 15, 2016.

Those selected will each receive a $25,000 grant to help grow their startup food businesses, as equity-free capital. They will also have travel-related expenses covered during the program, and receive education and mentorship.

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“Good food for all is the new tech,” Ulukaya told Fast Company. “This has been in my mind for the longest time—for a couple of years now. I would go out there and talk to [food] entrepreneurs, and the questions they would ask were all very, very similar.”

Among the non-financial perks, the Chobani Food Incubator offers access to Chobani teams, executives and experts, exposure to food industry thought leaders and top retail partners, digital support, and more. Fast Company reported that test kitchens and office space would also be included, but these benefits are not currently promised on the program website.

One executive and one or two other team members from each company must be able to participate in the six-month incubator program, which will run from October 2016 through March 2017, online and on-site. Companies are not required to relocate, but are expected to participate in monthly on-site events at Chobani locations across the U.S., which may include the Chobani office in New York City, NY, manufacturing plants in Twin Falls, ID and New Berlin, NY, and sales offices in Bentonville, AK, Cincinnati, OH or Minneapolis, MN. Near the end of the program, the participating companies will showcase their products to more than 77,000 members of the natural food community at the EXPO West trade show in Anaheim, CA – not unlike Ulukaya did for the first time nearly 10 years ago.

“I think that fundamentally Hamdi designed the food incubator to build on the founding mission of the company: which is making better food for more people,” said Michael Gonda, the vice president of corporate communications at Chobani. “Very specifically, he designed it to help entrepreneurs who were in a similar position that he was in when he first started Chobani.”

One of the goals of the program is to help participants learn how to stay true to their values while they grow and scale, just as Ulukaya has, Gonda added. The program website notes that programming will cover topics such as building a sustainable business in addition to basics such as marketing, sales and retail strategy, food quality and safety, and nutrition and food labeling.

“Chobani’s story has become proof that small food startups with the right mindset can make a big difference,” Ulukaya says in the program’s welcome video, calling it a “no-strings-attached program to find the best ideas, and products, and entrepreneurs to go after the big guys.”

Chobani is committed to continue paying it forward by making its food incubator an ongoing program, but has not announced the details of future programs, such as how frequently they will be run or how many startups will be selected for each cohort.

Chobani is not the first food company to seek out new ideas from startups. For example, Unilever, Cargill, General Mills, Heineken, Mars, PepsiCo and Tesco are hosting an Innovation Pitching Event this November at Food Matters Live in London, U.K. for food companies and entrepreneurs (which they also did last year).

Earlier this year, Campbell Soup Company both launched a $125 million venture capital fund to invest in food startups and was the lead sponsor of Net Impact’s first-ever Forward Food Competition. The winners of the latter were announced last month. Closer to the farm, companies such as Bayer and DuPont recently backed a $15 million agriculture technology fund.

Those who have more tech-focused food startups can also check out programs such as F&A Next and Reimagine Food’s Prometheus accelerator program.

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