Mars announced at Natural Products Expo West the launch of a business accelerator program to boost food-focused startups to faster growth. The program is called Seeds of Change and is named after the company's organic seed and food brand.
Mars said it will pick six U.S. and four Australian participants from startup food brands, innovative experiential offerings, new business models and emerging technology. Each startup will receive a grant of up to $50,000 and undertake a four-month program to scale its operations, the company said. Applications are accepted until May 31.
"By helping start-ups tackle practical business challenges, such as scaling a product and brand storytelling, and giving them access to our extended network of mentors and advisors, we're nurturing the next generation of fresh ideas that will shape and enhance the meals of tomorrow," Gary Arora, global lead of open innovation at Launchpad for Mars, said in a release.
Mars plans to focus its search for accelerator program participants on companies that share its values of World Flavors, Plant-Based Eating, Easy-Meal Solutions, Responsible Food and Creating with Care. This is more likely to result in the Virginia-based company working with startups on the cutting edge of consumer trends and interests, which may also help position the company more along those trends.
That may actually be why Mars decided to launch the accelerator in the first place. Since food tastes change quickly, manufacturers must be nimble enough to change with them or be left behind. As Clarence Mak, chief marketing, sales and innovation officer for Global Mars Food, told Food Business News, assisting "forward-thinking entrepreneurs and innovators" to develop their ideas will "ultimately enhance the meals of tomorrow."
Business accelerators and incubators have been around for a long time. Many big food companies have launched them in recent years, with Mars being the latest to do so. Nestlé, Campbell Soup, Conagra, Land O'Lakes, Tyson Foods, Kraft Heinz, Chobani and General Mills are some of the larger food manufacturers that have nurtured startups in similar, adjacent or entirely different food and beverage enterprises.
Incubators and accelerators are a way for larger, more established food companies to invest in a creative idea and potentially see returns in a relatively short period of time. While quite a few startup products are innovative snacks, some are new takes on traditional products such as yogurt, sauces, beverages and fermented items.
Chobani's Food Incubator, in action since 2017, has been successful in identifying promising startups looking for operational help but interested in remaining independent. Texas-based WildWay is an example of one startup that partnered with the yogurt maker to help enhance its better-for-you breakfast and snack items.
Conagra and Kellogg have partnered in a joint project called "The Hatchery," a food and beverage incubator in Chicago that opened last fall and mainly focuses on snacks. Kraft Heinz established an incubator platform called Springboard last year to help develop, scale and accelerate the growth of "disruptive" food and beverage startups. That program looks for developing brands that make healthy, organic, specialty and experiential products, and announced its second class of startups on Tuesday.
With such a variety of incubators and accelerators out there today, promising startups have several opportunities to find a larger company willing to share a range of expertise and encourage the development of good ideas.
Mars said its Seeds of Change program will make a panel of industry expert mentors available to participating startups. These mentors are Stephen Badger, board chairman of Mars, Inc.; Rohan Oza, brand builder and recent "guest shark" on Shark Tank; and JKR, a creative agency credited with launching startups.
Aside from the diverse expert panel that will work with participants, there's another big difference that sets Mars' accelerator program apart from other food and beverage companies. Mars is a family-owned company, and it's privately held. Because of this background, the company said in the release announcing the program, Mars understands the value of helping now-small companies flourish. The company structure and history may help accelerator participants see a more personal touch, as well as more value placed on the history and structure of the companies.