Battle Creek pilot aims to develop a food startup scene – Crain's Detroit Business

GRAND RAPIDS — Leaders in Battle Creek are betting the area has enough food industry talent to launch startups — and they’ve received federal funding to test that theory.
Battle Creek Unlimited, an economic development group serving Southwest Michigan, earlier this month received from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration’s Build to Scale program a $375,000 venture challenge grant, with a $416,571 local match, to develop a Future Food Accelerator.
It also received a $147,750 capital challenge grant from the EDA, with a $160,000 local match, to create a Food and Beverage Investors Network — an angel group that will fund the early-stage food manufacturing companies that are part of the accelerator.
Local funding and in-kind pledges came from the city of Battle Creek and its Downtown Development Authority, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Michigan State University.
BCU’s President and CEO Joe Sobieralski said the nearly $1.1 million investment will encourage Cereal City’s food industry veterans to put their “institutional knowledge” toward food and beverage innovation — not as Kellogg or Post suppliers but as “something completely different” and largely undetermined.
“Battle Creek’s a food town — we’ve got Kellogg, we’ve got Post — and as folks retire out of the company, or leave the company, we have all this institutional knowledge that either moves on, retires here, stays here or whatever,” he said. “So it’s an effort to capture that talent and accelerate the food development in Battle Creek.”
Bob Samples, professor of food marketing and executive in residence at the Haworth College of Business at Western Michigan University, said in an email to Crain’s he doesn’t see evidence of an existing food startup scene in Battle Creek, though he’s heard the accelerator hopes to change that.
“That’s a fair statement,” Sobieralski responded when asked about it later. That’s exactly what he’s hoping to change.
Samples’ colleague, Russell Zwanka, director of the food marketing program at WMU, said he’s heard of the effort to launch the Future Food Accelerator. But the only food innovation group he is involved with is Can Do Kalamazoo, a food business incubator that offers training, funding and a rental kitchen for startups that don’t yet have their own commercial facilities.
Sobieralski said the Future Food Accelerator will be different than Can Do. It will have an all-virtual model that will link entrepreneurs to outside research and development facilities, university technology innovation programs, entrepreneurial support programs and industry/market experts. Its partners will include MSU, Kellogg Community College, Kellogg, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and JPG Resources.
“Beyond Battle Creek, this could help leverage assets in the region, so as we get going, maybe Can Do (Kalamazoo) becomes one of those assets that can benefit from this, as well,” Sobieralski said.
JPG is a consulting firm that helps startups commercialize their ideas. Sobieralski said it’s a good example of consumer-packaged goods talent from Battle Creek leveraging their knowledge to launch new brands.
JPG was founded by Kellogg and Kashi alum Jeff Grogg, who now is the president of Battle Creek-based SnackWerks. Grogg built a team of 10 other industry insiders who so far have helped 147 new food brands launch and/or scale, according to JPG’s website.
BCU is hoping to harness JPG’s expertise, alongside training resources from the educational and corporate partners, to keep food industry talent in Battle Creek.
Kellogg’s plan to split into three separate companies was announced after BCU had begun planning the Future Food Accelerator. Sobieralski sees news of the spinoff as a boon to BCU’s efforts rather than a threat.
“We’re going to have a company that’s going to have tentacles into the Chicago food scene, and they’re also going to be based in Battle Creek; they’re going to have dual-purpose campuses,” he said. “So we could get a lot more transient food individuals visiting our community,” like venture capitalists or industry experts.
BCU will use the EDA grant and local match to hire a leader for the accelerator, create an oversight committee, market the program to entrepreneurs, and begin investing in startups.
Sobieralski hopes to have a team in place to begin accelerating companies within three to six months.
“This is in its infancy; this is kind of the start of it, and we hope to grow it beyond just this initial EDM award,” he said.
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