When FaB Wisconsin wraps up its FaBcap Accelerator program in June, it will have graduated 30 Wisconsin-based food and beverage companies from the program since launching it in 2015.
This year’s cohort of 10 up-and-coming small businesses was selected from almost 50 applicants, which is the largest-ever applicant pool the accelerator has attracted.
The nine-month accelerator, which kicks off annually in September, is intended to assist companies to build “capacity and capitalization” by providing one-on-one financial coaching, access to investors, and group meetings and seminars – not to mention a $10,000 check and financial package upon graduation.
Throughout the program, the group convenes to learn from industry experts about topics including food safety, sales, operations and finance. The most recent meeting focused on marketing. The program culminates with an opportunity for each company to make a pitch to a group of Wisconsin angel investors.
Current participants include: The Honest Bison Inc., Little Food Co., Domeloz, Hempire Farms, Potter’s Crackers, Saffi Foods, Drink Zyn, Bittercube LLC, Bioionix Inc. and The Naked Baker LLC.
The class mainly consists of consumer goods manufacturers, but each year it also includes one technology-based company; this year it’s McFarland-based Bioionix, which has engineered an electrochemical system that disinfects liquids used for processing and manufacturing food.
“The path to success is a bit convoluted for a food and beverage business, so wrapping them with real industry experience is what we have found the cappers going through the program appreciate most of all,” said Shelley Jurewicz, executive director at FaB Wisconsin, which was formed five years ago.
For each class of “cappers,” and especially for food and beverage technology companies, the program provides resources that go above and beyond those of a traditional accelerator program, she said.
This is because there are certain nuances to the food and beverage industry that present challenges for companies attempting to grow, requiring steep investments of capital to reach the next level, Jurewicz said.
These nuances range from the industry’s product distribution channels to its pricing structure. But with new regulations brought on in recent years by the federal Food Safety Modernization Act, the issue of food safety has presented significant roadblocks.
As part of the act, which was first passed in 2011, all food production workers or anyone who enters a food production facility were recently required to have documented annual training in food safety. Previously, such training was required but because documenting it wasn’t lawfully necessary, the industry’s manufacturing sector lacked access to affordable basic training, she said.
That’s why FaB recently rolled out a new initiative, called FaBsafe Certificate, which is a four-hour food safety training course for food and beverage manufacturers. It launched over the summer as a pilot program, but starting in 2019 will be offered monthly at a handful of universities throughout the state. Companies can also bring FaB in to train their employees on-site.
“It not only fulfills this annual requirement of training, but it also serves as a doorway into the industry for young talent,” Jurewicz said. “This is a certificate that you could get as a senior in high school and then start your career with a food and beverage business.”
Amidst new and ongoing initiatives like FaBcap Accelerator and FaBsafe Certificate, FaB Wisconsin continues to work toward the launch of an industry center of excellence, called The Future Food Center. It would be home to FaB Wisconsin, a research and development pilot center, and other offices for companies in the industry.
The long-planned project has been proposed for the City Campus on Milwaukee’s near west side. Developer Rick Wiegand in 2016 purchased the three-building complex, located south of West Wells Street, between North 27th and North 28th streets, and is now working with FaB to open the center in the nine-story former Family Hospital building at the corner of North 28th and West Wells streets.
Seventeen companies gathered at the site in July to discuss the center’s potential for their operations, and at FaB’s annual meeting in November, David Lenz, chief operating officer of West Bend-based cookware manufacturer Regal Ware Inc., publicly announced the company’s interest in and support of the development.
However, the center has yet to secure a committed tenant.
“The challenge with the property is it’s a 100,000-square-foot building, so for us to come up with 80 percent of tenant commitments is pretty difficult for us to do on our own,” Jurewicz said.
FaB isn’t planning to give up on the current site, but Jurewicz said it would consider other locations if enough companies committed to filling a smaller space – possibly to be located across from the similar-in-concept Global Water Center in Reed Street Yards.
“It’s still advancing, it’s just not there yet,” she said.