UT’s Food Lab to host business plan competition centered on developing food industry startups

Wynne Davis

The University opened registration Sunday for the UT Food Lab Challenge, an international competition focused on the evolving food industry. 

Sponsored by the University’s Food Lab, the competition is centered on developing food industry startups, Robyn Metcalfe, lab director and human ecology lecturer, said. According to the University, applications will be accepted until Sept. 30, after which 20 finalists will be announced on Nov. 1. After the finalists are chosen, the 20 teams will be paired with mentors, who will provide feedback before the final presentation day on Feb. 14, 2015. Winners in each category will receive $5,000 and one team will receive the grand prize of $10,000.

Metcalfe said she has seen a growth in interest for food startups — especially from festivals like South By Southwest.

Metcalfe sees the competition as an opportunity to focus on the differences between most startups and businesses that are food-related since food is a perishable commodity, often controlled by government regulations.

“We really felt that, although there are common things food startups need to know in general about starting a business, there are some things really specific to food startups,” Metcalfe said. “We thought, first of all, igniting some interest around food startups was really important for that reason, and we can provide that kind of support for that kind of knowledge related to specific food startups.”

Daniel Heron, a UT alumnus who cofounded the Food Lab in 2012 with Metcalfe and still works with food startups at Tech Ranch in Austin, said he thinks the competition is a new opportunity for food entrepreneurs to get involved in the startup community and raise venture capital.

“I think it’s really cool because it’s focused on ‘How do we feed the city?’” Heron said. “It’s focused on the food system and how it refers to feeding urban populations, and that’s a very focused group.”

Metcalfe said that although Austin has numerous startup hubs, the Food Lab offers more tools for food-related entrepreneurial ideas in early development.

“The other thing is the idea came that, although there are numerous incubators and accelerators in Austin, what we can do is support really early stage startups. Those that are simply an idea,” Metcalfe said. “They don’t necessarily even have their long-term team assembled. They may not even have a good financial strategic plan, and we can help with that early stage.”

The competition is not restricted to students or those in Austin, and teams can be made of contestants from different countries.  

Nutrition junior Salima Bhimani said she likes the competition’s different themes — inputs and production, storages and distribution, healthy eating and food education and processing, packaging and safety — because of the flexibility it provides contestants.

“It’s a great way to get different ideas into the food industry,” Bhimani said. “Every individual has his own ideas, so it’s a cool way to acknowledge them.”