University students have for years created businesses in their dorm rooms. Although “college entrepreneur” often evokes images of tech founders, a cadre of students is instead focusing on disrupting the food industry.
These entrepreneurs are using science, in addition to taste, to bring their products to market. Their focus is low-tech, but they face their own set of challenges, including waste and food safety regulations, experts say.
“Starting a food company actually is much harder than creating, say, an app, because students learn how to program in school and can test a beta version with potential customers,” said Ricardo San Martin, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who leads a new program focusing on creating meat and seafood alternatives.
“But in the food space, students need to find a place to produce their product, find a backer and meet both state and federal regulations,” he said. “And they need to find distribution channels and, above all, convince people to eat a new food that might be foreign to what they’re accustomed to.”
Snack foods are a popular starting point for many young founders, said Kara Nielsen, the vice president for trends and marketing at CCD Helmsman in Oakland, Calif. It’s a trend that has had legs, beginning with millennials who, she said, “were always on the go and looking for healthy eating.”
Hunger can be a great motivator.
Rip Pruisken of the Netherlands was frequently on the hunt for snacks while a student at Brown University. After visits home, he often hauled back stroopwafels — a popular Dutch cookie and caramel combination that was not readily available in Providence, R.I., home to Brown.
“Everyone wanted them, which I thought was cool, but I didn’t think twice about it until my junior year,” Mr. Pruisken said. When not studying, he began to experiment with making the waffles.
Through trial and error, he hit on a recipe and consistency he liked. He began selling his confection on campus in 2008, finding a ready audience among snack-hungry students. Their popularity prompted him to increase his production, so he found a kitchen, acquired a food license and worked on packaging.
With Marco De Leon, his co-founder and a fellow Brown student, he continues to experiment with new recipes nine years after graduation. One is their version of a 200-year-old cookie. And they are trying to reduce sugar content in the foods while maintaining taste. Their company, Rip Van Wafels, has expanded far beyond its New England roots, with national distribution at many grocery store chains.
Daniel Kurzrock and Jordan Schwartz also created a snack bar, but their product grew out of an earlier goal: brewing beer when they were freshmen in 2009 at the University of California, Los Angeles.
There was, however, one nagging problem: The two had grown up with a sustainability mind-set, and home brewing was anything but. “We were using one pound of grain for every six-pack of beer. It just felt wasteful,” Mr. Kurzrock said.
They searched online for ways to use spent grain, the term used to describe the byproduct of brewing. And they quickly hit on an opportunity to make money by baking bread with the leftover grain.
“We couldn’t sell the beer, but we could sell food products from the grain and then we could make beer for free,” Mr. Kurzrock said.
They tried making and selling bread, but the process was time consuming and the product had a short shelf life. After some research, Mr. Kurzrock said, they shifted to granola bars. Now, nearly 10 years in, they are pivoting once again to focus on making flour from the grains. Their beer brewing is a thing of the past; they now get their spent grains from craft breweries instead. And they are completing their first production center in Berkeley, home to several breweries.
Their expanded direction is consistent with what Ms. Nielsen of CCD Helmsman says is another culinary wave: avoiding food waste by reusing, or upcycling, byproducts into other food.
But they faced other challenges. Selling food commercially can be complicated by state and federal regulations. Several states and municipalities allow the sale of homemade food, typically limited to farmers’ markets and local stands, according to data compiled by forrager.com. Scaling food production involves more complicated state and federal regulation.
Food safety has also factored into the evolution of their company, called ReGrained. Mr. Kurzrock discovered that the Department of Agriculture collaborates with companies on business solutions.
Tara McHugh, a research leader at the Agricultural Research Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture, helped ReGrained find a way to dry the spent grains safely without growing mold. Dr. McHugh said the research led to a process for which the U.S.D.A. has filed a patent application that lists Mr. Kurzrock and Mr. Schwartz as co-inventors.
Industry stalwarts are taking notice of ReGrained. The Italian pasta maker the Barilla Group recently formed an investment group, Blu1877, “to develop new food ecosystems that respect people and the planet,” a spokesman said in an email. In September, ReGrained secured $2.5 million in seed funding from Blu1877, Griffith Foods and other investors.
The sustainability concept that motivated the ReGrained founders also inspired Ben Simon, a University of Maryland student. He grew concerned with the amount of food discarded by his dining hall at the end of the day. Watching the employees cart away uneaten pasta one evening, he realized that local homeless shelters and soup kitchens could use the food that was headed for the dumpster.
He enlisted other students and researched food safety laws and local regulations. Crucial to the efforts was a 1996 federal law that protects food donors.
“Because we had no budget, we ended up putting the food in aluminum foil containers and having students volunteer their own cars to drive to different soup kitchens and homeless shelters,” Mr. Simon said.
Over time, the students formed partnerships with two of the largest food service companies — the Bon Appétit Management Company and Sodexo — which invested in the program and helped to create food safety rules for the donations. Those guidelines allowed the students to scale their program and led to the creation of the Food Recovery Network.
Mr. Simon now has a separate venture, Imperfect Produce, a spinoff of the Food Recovery Network. He became interested in fruits and vegetables that were edible but whose appearance was marred. He formed a company with Ben Chesler, a Food Recovery Network board member, to gather food directly from farmers and deliver it to consumers at a discount.
Their financing was initially limited to a crowdfunding campaign, personal money and a $35,000 fellowship that Mr. Chesler received from Brown. Eventually, the founders received outside investments from other investors, whom Mr. Simon declined to name. The company is expanding beyond produce to sell slightly imperfect grains and coffee at a discount.
Imperfect Produce and ReGrained are “mission-based brands that are trying to make a difference,” Ms. Nielsen said, adding that a related area was “sustainable protein.”
Working to that end is Prime Roots, a company develop a plant-based product that replicates the taste of a salmon burger. Kimberlie Le, a founder and the chief executive, said the idea began in a class on alternative meats she took in 2017 at the University of California, Berkeley.
Ms. Le and her co-founder, Joshua Nixon, are experimenting with alternatives to farmed fish, which is increasingly viewed as environmentally unsustainable, and wild-caught fish, which can be affected by plastics and other pollutants.
Prime Roots instead uses fungi as the protein basis. The company is asking visitors to its website to vote from a range of seafood and meat substitutes to pick its first product, which it hopes to begin selling next year.
For Ms. Le, working on her nascent company eclipsed her interest in academics. She said she had fulfilled the requirements for three majors, but she never actually graduated.
That’s not unusual; business efforts often overshadow an entrepreneur’s studies. Mr. Simon said he took six years to graduate from the University of Maryland because of the time he spent running the Food Recovery Network.
The support of their parents was crucial, these business owners say.
“My parents are both physicists and both very intellectual,” Mr. Pruisken said. “They couldn’t understand why their son wanted to make cookies, but they’ve been driven by what piques their interest, and they saw that in me.”