FaB Wisconsin accelerator takes new approach to developing startups

Shelley Jurewicz is bringing the tech accelerator model to one of Wisconsin’s oldest clusters: food and beverages. 

That’s because, the exec director of FaB Wisconsin says, “a food startup is nothing like a tech startup” and needs specialized mentoring. It’s part of an effort from the group to develop companies and partnerships in the food and beverage space. 

And the sector is much broader than the state’s makers of beer, cheese and brats, Jurewicz said. The industry also includes the whole supply chain that leads up to the finished product, she said, from ingredient makers to packagers and distributors. 

“It’s a remarkable story that doesn’t get told,” Jurewicz said, “because they’re not the brand names you see on the shelf.” 

The effort started in Milwaukee in 2011, but the organization soon shifted to a statewide approach. Jurewicz said that’s helped attract companies such as Gourmet Foods International, which said in January it’s opening a distribution center in Kenosha. 

FaB Wisconsin members include companies such as Campbell Soup, General Mills, MillerCoors and Sargento Foods, as well as companies in packaging and waste disposal. 

They also include the 10 companies in FaB Wisconsin’s accelerator, FaBcap, which will graduate its first class of companies in September. 

Jurewicz said the group launched an accelerator because the demands on entrepreneurs is different than in the tech world. 

It might be easy to find a shared kitchen or work with a farmers market for the proof of concept stage, she said. But actually growing the business is “a whole other ballgame,” requiring significant spending on capital and complying with food regulations such as the new Food Safety Modernization Act. 

“We’re really giving people the straight talk on what it’s going to require for them to grow their business,” Jurewicz said. 

MobCraft CEO Henry Schwartz has gone through tech accelerators before for his company, which crowdsources beer ideas and brews them. But he said taking part in FaBcap has let him get insights from people who have spent their entire careers in the field — and other startups in his cohort that are facing similar issues. 

“It really puts a new look on it, to make sure you’re not only accomplishing your tasks but always trying to become efficient,” Schwartz said. 

Yet the companies in the accelerator are a bit too young for many food and beverage investors, who typically look for companies with higher revenues, said Nutrition Capital Network CEO and Principal Grant Ferrier. 

Ferrier, who visited FaB Wisconsin last fall, is having his annual meeting in New York for investors, but he decided it was “a little too soon” for the companies in FaBcap to pitch. 

Still, Ferrier said FaB Wisconsin’s efforts “haven’t really been replicated” anywhere in the country, and its accelerator will help startups establish crucial industry connections. 

“Creating a supportive environment for those companies through an accelerator is a great help to get them to the next level,” Ferrier said. 

Jurewicz, meanwhile, says successes for its companies so far include MobCraft and two others moving into new facilities. And she notes venture capital firms have expressed interest in some companies. In addition, an international firm is interested in acquiring one. 

What wasn’t so successful was a partnership with Milwaukee Area Technical College that didn’t get much interest from students. The two partnered on a pilot program for food manufacturing and had scholarships lined up from companies, but not enough students signed up. 

FaB Wisconsin is now working with an advertising firm to market the industry’s jobs, highlighting the opportunities to be part of recession-proof industry that helps feed the world. 

“We’re taking a step back and saying, ‘Just because we built something doesn’t mean they’ll come,’” Jurewicz said. 

The group is also taking a page from the Water Council and the Mid-West Energy Research Consortium to try to set up a “Center of Excellence” that will be a hub for food and beverage companies. Jurewicz said they’re still locking down a location in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley, close to several food companies. 

“We’re pretty excited about it,” she said. “Each week, it seems a little closer to reality, but we’re still working on it.” 

Polo Rocha, WisBusiness

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