Competition time: Startups with ‘innovative’ dairy products can win cash, mentorship and more

By Teodora Lyubomirova

- Last updated on GMT

GettyImages/FrankvandenBergh
GettyImages/FrankvandenBergh

Related tags Organic Dairy Milk Innovation Competition Organic dairy Cornell University

From product prototyping to thousands in cash, the new Northeastern Dairy Product Innovation Competition aims to support food innovators looking to launch products that utilize dairy ingredients produced in the US northeast.

The competition is the first of its kind organized by Cornell University’s Center for Regional Economic Advancement in partnership with the Northeast Dairy Foods Research Center. It is designed to support up-and-coming businesses launch value-added food products that incorporate dairy ingredients from the northwest, in a bid to bolster the region's milk utilization.

There will be up to 10 finalists who will receive US$20,000 each, along with access to Cornell’s Food Processing and Development Laboratory, industry mentorship and training on product prototyping and optimization, safety compliance, and business planning.

From the initial shortlist, up to three winners will be revealed in the summer. They will receive additional US$55,000 and will be featured in the Dairy Innovation Showcase at the 2023 Grow-NY Summit in Upstate New York.

The competition is backed by the Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center, which is providing US$1m to cover resources available to participants throughout the competition, including in-residence prototyping, one-on-one mentoring from industry professionals, as well as ongoing business workshops and networking opportunities. Grant funds will also be used to cover travel-related expenses incurred by participants when visiting the campus, we were told.

Jenn Smith, director of food and ag startup programs at Cornell’s Center for Regional Economic Advancement, said the competition is designed as ‘an onramp to entrepreneurship for people passionate about meeting customer needs with high-quality dairy products’.

Entry criteria

The main requirement for those looking to enter is that the products that applicants are seeking to bring to market are made from milk and/or dairy ingredients produced in the country’s northeast, e.g. Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

Pre-formation or early-stage startups located in any US state can enter, as long as they have ‘a viable product and scalable business model and are ready to commit to scaling their products’. Small and organic farms, not-for-profit organizations, and dairy co-operatives can all take part.

According to Leigh Martino Toerper, marketing and communications lead at Cornell University’s Center for Regional Economic Advancement, ‘innovation’ stands for products that are entirely novel and those that are improvements on existing products. “The factors considered when evaluating innovation include originality of concept, novelty of dairy ingredient utilization, degree of increased nutrition, sustainability, and appeal, and how effectively the product addresses today's consumer preferences,” she added.

“Commercial viability will be evaluated based on the applicant's ability to describe their target consumers, their current engagement with this consumer group, and their plan to deliver the product to consumers.”

Competition timeline

Applications are now open and will close on March 31, 2023. Finalists will be selected in April. From May to July, they will receive mentoring and support, including at Cornell’s Food Processing and Development Lab. “Each finalist will be paired with a mentor based on the specific needs and skills of that finalist,” we were told. “Mentors will meet with finalists on a regular basis to provide support in customer discovery, business plan development and pitching, as well as resource engagement.”

In August, up to three winners will be revealed. They will receive US$55,000 on top of the initial US$20,000, bagging a total of U$75,000 plus the opportunity to feature in November’s Grow-NY Summit.

More information about the competition's objectives, timeline and eligibility criteria will be outlined during online sessions taking in February. For more information on how to sign up to those, visit the competition’s website​.

Boost for northeastern dairies

Northeastern dairies, particularly small organic producers, have faced various challenges in recent years, including a lower overall demand for dairy milk in the US and declining organic milk sales over the last five years (down 2.3% in 2022 alone). Meanwhile, production has continued to climb and feed costs have skyrocketed.

Major market shifts, such as Horizon Organic’s decision to pull out from the region​, have forced some organic dairies to move into traditional dairy, while others have opted to shut down their operations.

By requiring entrants to use dairy ingredients specifically produced in the northeast, the competition seeks to raise the profile of all dairies from the region while going some way to boost milk utilization.

Laura Ginsburg, director of the Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center, said: “The high-quality milk our Northeast Dairy farmers produce is an excellent ingredient for many value-added products. This competition, along with our specialized grants for dairy processors, creates more pathways for regional dairy processing that benefits farmers, consumers, and our regional economy."

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