"Incubators"—places that help tech entrepreneurs turn their ideas into a business plan and shop it around to investors—have become almost as common in hip urban enclaves as farmers' markets. Less common, however, are incubators that support the small-scale entrepreneurs who sell at those markets. A new project called Local Food Lab, founded by a pair of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, is working to bring the benefits of these incubators to food startups.
Local Food Lab co-founder Krysia Zajonc realized just how tough it can be for food entrepreneurs to strike out on their own when she found herself in their shoes. Once employed at Facebook, she made the jump to food when she started her own café, bookstore, and chocolate line in Costa Rica. "When I started the food business, I kind of thought there would be the support network that I’d seen my peers in tech benefit from," she says, things like easily available contacts, mentorship, and access to distributors. "But there was nothing like that in food. And at the same time we saw that people were so interested in food, and food was getting to be a really viable career for young people."
Zajonc and her partner Mateo Aguilar started Local Food Lab’s accelerator program to fill the mentorship void. This summer, they worked with eight seed stage entrepreneurs in a four-week program designed to help participants craft a business plan, pitch investors, and build a network of contacts. Meeting for full-day sessions on Mondays and Wednesdays, the aspiring entrepreneurs spent the mornings studying basics like marketing and finance and the afternoons working one-on-one with mentors. The program spawned a company importing specialty teas from small farmers in Nepal, a local-food corner store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a company that purchases leftover animal bones from farmers to make stock, among others.
This fall Zajon and Aguilar plan to do it all over again. The six-week program, which starts in October and costs $2,500, will give participants the chance to work with notable techies, foodies, investors, and strategists in the Bay Area. It's a small step toward Local Food Lab's goal of becoming "the leading source for the ideas, skills and communities that will nurture innovation and entrepreneurship in local food systems," but it's likely to yield some new treats.