Niche startup accelerator programs are sprouting up like leafy greens in spring, and co-working spaces have been gaining global popularity since the late 90s. And now The Food Loft is offering elements of both to a select group of food and food tech startups in Boston’s South End. The space, an initiative of veteran cookbook publisher, Harvard Common Press (HCP), hopes to bolster bright, passionate food game-changers by providing working space, networking and business insights.
Co-founders Bruce Shaw, president, and Adam Salomone, associate publisher, of HCP say they created the space to combat the lack of resources – contacts, insights and funding – that they feel prohibits food and food tech entrepreneurs from achieving real success. The space currently houses three food startups: Bakeepedia, the ultimate baker’s resource, Culture, a Mecca for all things cheese, and NoshOn.It, a daily chef-created recipe newsletter.
The Food Loft is just one of many initiatives that Shaw and Salomone have on deck to support food startups–they’re also planning to launch an early stage food fund. We caught up with them to learn more about its backstory and broader goals.
Food+Tech Connect: What was the inspiration for The Food Loft?
Bruce Shaw & Adam Salomone: The Food Loft was developed out of our work through The Harvard Common Press, a 30+ year old cookbook publisher based in Boston. Back in 2009, we began exploring ways in which our content (primarily recipes) could be used to form strategic business relationships with food and food tech startups, where they could leverage our content, and we could gain insight into the changing world of food online. That led us to Yummly, an online recipe search engine, in which we made an investment in 2010, and then follow-on investments after that. In making that first investment, we received a ton of interest from other entrepreneurs looking for funding. We’ve now talked with 100-150 entrepreneurs working in the food space, and made three investments in food companies.
Throughout all our conversations over the past 3-4 years, it became clear that the world of food innovation is close-knit and that entrepreneurs lacked the resources (contacts, insight and funding) to create a vibrant ecosystem around food tech. We saw many pockets of innovation, and investment happening on a small scale, but knew that something more could be done. The Food Loft developed out of that vision, with the goal to attract a cluster of talented entrepreneurs who are solving problems in food and food tech. We want to give these businesses perspective and insights from our 30+ years as a food content company, and potentially give them access to others in our network and in the space, who can help them grow their business and forge a path forward for food innovation.
FTC: What does the startup selection process look like. Can food tech startups of all stages apply to work in the space?
BS & AS: Food and food tech startups of all stages can certainly be part of the space, though the constraint is more team size than stage of company growth. We’re targeting companies that are on the smaller scale, with between 5-7(10 maximum) people working on a project. The reason for this is that we want to partner with the companies in our space. We want to find ways to help them succeed and get to know them on a personal level, rather than just offering a desk and some space to work. The food business is a people-centric business, and we want to know the people behind the companies that are creating change. Targeting smaller companies with close-knit teams will allow us to do that and will ultimately benefit all the companies.
We are looking across all areas of food innovation to attract companies that will be a good fit with the space. But more so than vetting any idea or business plan, we’re looking for smart, passionate and dedicated entrepreneurs to work with us. In talking with 100+ startups over the past 3-4 years, it’s become clear how much of startup work is about people. So we’re striving to find companies that are a good fit on a person-to-person level. We’re looking for startups to whom we can offer expertise, content, and contacts to help them succeed–and vice versa, if they can partner with us to give us new insight and help us better our business practices.
FTC: How quickly are you looking to expand the number of startups renting space and how has the launch been received so far by Boston-based food tech startups?
BS & AS: The response thus far has been incredibly enthusiastic. While we’ve been getting the space ready for some time, we have been talking with a close circle of entrepreneurs for the past 6 months to be sure that The Food Loft would meet the needs of the community. Since then, and with word spreading about the launch, food entrepreneurs have contacted us from all over the city expressing interest in working with us. This response is exactly what we were hoping to prove with a co-working space for food. Food activity and innovation is quite robust, but many entrepreneurs don’t know where to go to find resources for success. We are looking to position The Food Loft as one of those resources.
As far as growth in the near-term, we’re more interested in quality than quantity. Finding the right people, who are a good fit and who can offer something to the community in the space (and get something from that same community as well) is far more important to us than number of bodies in the office. Ultimately, it will grow organically, it will take time to get to a critical mass of entrepreneurs, but if the response we’ve received thus far is any indication, We feel positively that we won’t have any trouble finding those entrepreneurs.
FTC: Can you provide more detail about the possibility of starting an early-stage food fund? Is the ultimate goal to start an accelerator program?
BS & AS: Throughout all of our work at Harvard Common Press, investing in food and food tech startups and meeting with entrepreneurs, we’ve felt that a gap remains in the amount of innovation coming from entrepreneur circles and we’re seen a relative lack of funding from the investment community to back those ideas. With that in mind, and separate from either Harvard Common Press or The Food Loft, we’ve been pushing ahead with plans to launch an early-stage food fund to invest in these kinds of companies. We are continuing to move ahead with that and seeing positive signs for the future of such a fund.
All that said, we are actually not looking to tie together the fund and The Food Loft in an accelerator type of arrangement. We are confident that much of the work we are doing with both initiatives will be synergistic, that we will meet entrepreneurs and find ways to partner with them, whether through investment or through their involvement with the space. But we don’t want one area of opportunity to preclude another. By not tying the opportunity for coworking space to a monetary incentive, we feel that we can attract the most talented entrepreneurs, have real relationships with them that go well beyond any investment proposition, and build a future for food that engages all members of the food ecosystem. This will of course end up relating back to our work investing in food companies, but we don’t feel that we should be including or excluding companies based on investment considerations.