Starting a company from the ground up is a daunting endeavor, but data shows a steady climb in startups in the United States over the past decade, with more than 330,000 businesses entering the market in 2023.
Jim Gratzek, director of the University of Georgia’s Food Product Innovation and Commercialization Center (FoodPIC), earned his doctorate in food process engineering from UGA’s Department of Food Science and Technology. He returned to the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES) in 2022 after nearly 30 years in the commercial food industry, bringing a new perspective. In his experience, the biggest hurdle for new food entrepreneurs who don’t yet have sufficient working capital or manufacturing facilities is moving a product from concept to consumer.
This hurdle, he added, is part of FoodPIC’s core mission.
Located on the UGA Griffin campus, FoodPIC taps into the research and educational capacity of CAES and UGA Cooperative Extension to connect food and marketing enterprises with specialists in food technology, engineering, food safety and regulatory strategies, sensory analysis and pilot production, among others.
Startup companies can partner with FoodPIC to use its licensed, state-of-the-art facility, equipped with the latest technology and staffed by experienced professionals, to conduct research, refine recipes, and ensure that their products meet the highest standards of quality and safety before going to market.
For startups without the financial means to invest in such facilities independently, FoodPIC offers a bridge to success that might otherwise be out of reach, Gratzek explained.
“It’s hard to design and manage a facility that makes food, so we try to take some of that work out of it for our clients,” he said. “Our goal is to help food companies get off the ground and far enough along in the business development process to determine whether their product will be viable and competitive on the market.”
Packaging BeBetter Beverages for launch
Santiago Bargagna, a former executive for Coca-Cola, is the founder and CEO of BeBetter Beverages, a new beverage business in Georgia specializing in a hydration powder mix that contains dehydrated, organic coconut water and five essential electrolytes.
Recently, Bargagna worked with Gratzek and his team to fine-tune the packaging of his product, emphasizing the environmental and cost-saving advantages of making sports drinks from home instead of buying bottled drinks.
“I was immediately pleased to partner with FoodPIC,” Bargagna said. “They have all the qualities and innovation I expected, and they’re perfectly obsessive — the way I like to be — about making a great product. The production is perfect for a start-up company that’s trying to launch.”
Bargagna explained that FoodPIC helped create a packaging design for the product that cuts down on plastic, lowering energy consumption throughout production and reducing transportation costs. FoodPIC met his company's needs for a product that is not only better for the health of the consumer but also better for the environment thanks to its sleek, minimalist packaging.
Developing a new flavor for Zorro Pecans
As part of CAES, FoodPIC also prepares students for careers in food science through internships and employment opportunities that provide real-world experiences working with various food enterprises.
Liz Ward, a third-year student in the food science and technology department, completed a summer internship with FoodPIC last year that led to a student worker position in the fall. Ward took the lead in developing a new flavor for Zorro Pecans, a company that sells an assortment of Georgia-grown pecan products.
Ward researched flavor profiles, conducted market testing, developed the formula, assembled the Nutrition Facts label and helped prepare and organize the appropriate paperwork for Zorro Pecans to launch their new sweet and spicy glazed pecans before the holiday season.
“My entire educational program has been learning about food production and the food industry,” said Ward. “This opportunity reinforced what I’d learned in the classroom and helped me understand the mindset of food scientists and producers in a real-world setting.”
Last month, Ward received an offer from a Chicago-based food product company for a 12-week internship this upcoming summer. She said her work with FoodPIC helped set her apart from other applicants to the program and has galvanized her career path in the industry.
As the center continues to grow, Gratzek hopes to expand the internship program to allow more students to gain hands-on experience working in food production. In the coming years, he hopes to increase partnerships and continue to improve the shared service model that makes FoodPIC so unique.
Efforts will specifically focus on procuring new equipment and technology to build the center’s capacity to meet additional packaged food needs.
“Our primary focus is on the foods, ingredients and technology that will have a positive economic impact to the state and region,” he said.