Food accelerator program gives entrepreneurs a boost during COVID-19

York University’s food accelerator program is the first of its kind in Ontario to help Canadian business owners with products in market scale up rapidly, giving them a much-needed jumpstart in a food industry challenged during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The York Region Food and Beverage Accelerator Program kicks off this month with eight companies, six of them led by women. Participation in the program is also diverse, with six of the companies led by visible minorities.

Isabelle Lam and Jamie Lee are co-founders of Remix, one of eight companies in York University's food accelerator program.

Isabelle Lam and Jamie Lee are co-founders of Remix, one of eight companies in York University's food accelerator program

The program is led by York’s YSpace, a Markham-based community innovation hub designed to bring together entrepreneurs and community builders, and is a partnership with The Regional Municipality of York and the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative.

The accelerator program is funded through a $106,000 grant from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, along with funding from York Region, the York Region Entrepreneur and Innovation Fund, through ventureLAB, and the cities of Vaughan and Markham.

“The need for our Food and Beverage Accelerator Program is greater than ever because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said David Kwok, associate director of entrepreneurship at Innovation York and YSpace. “Business owners are concerned about smaller retailers closing their doors for good, supply chain delays and the increasing cost of operating production facilities and research development labs because of requirements like personal protective equipment and redesigned workstations.”

The five-month program helps founders of consumer-packaged goods accelerate their sales, scale up and launch new products. The program provides expert mentorship, peer-to-peer circles and weekly virtual workshops to give founders the tools, skills and connections to grow and thrive. Workshop topics include strategic planning, pricing strategies, sales and marketing, operations and expansion, and Canadian regulations for product packaging.

Remix, one of the companies in the program, makes dark chocolate bark snacks using plant-based protein and upcycled fruit – those fruits considered imperfect because they don't meet the cosmetic standards of grocery stores. The company is believed to be the first and only Canadian company with a recipe to incorporate beans and upcycled fruit together in snacks.

“Sampling our snacks and demos is one of our main strategies in increasing brand awareness and customer acquisition, but due to COVID-19, that is no longer possible,” says Isabelle Lam, who co-founded Remix along with Jamie Lee.

“As well, many of our retailers had to close down, resulting in a dramatic decrease in our main revenue generating stream. However, with all these challenges, we mustered up the dedication and perseverance to focus, pivot, re-strategize and implement new ideas to our company in ways we hadn't thought of before.”

Lam and Lee, who grew up in Markham to immigrant parents from Hong Kong, say they are defying the conventional image of start-up founders.

“Being a visible minority, we observed that not a lot of other women of colour like us were leading companies in the food industry,” said Lam, who had a successful pitch on CBC’s Dragon’s Den when she appeared with her business partner last year.

The York Region Food and Beverage Accelerator supports Canada’s food and beverage processing industry, the second-largest manufacturing industry in the country in terms of value of production with the sales of goods manufactured worth $117.8 billion. The program also directly and indirectly benefits the agri-food sector including farms and food processing facilities.

“The food and beverage industry is a key driver to Canada’s economy and this program helps high-potential food and beverage ventures launch new products and scale into mass retail,” said York University’s Vice-President Research & Innovation Amir Asif. “York University is committed to creating positive change for our students, our communities and the world around us. Collaborating with the community on programs like this are a priority for York University as we deepen our presence in the region and construct the new Markham Centre Campus.”

In York Region alone, the agri-food sector contributes $2.7 billion to the economy.

“York Region is home to a vibrant agri-food sector that plays a fundamental role in our local economy,” said York Region Chairman and CEO Wayne Emmerson. “Being able to support the development of the program and continuing our partnership with York University helps local and Canadian food companies scale their businesses and continues to demonstrate that York Region is a leading hub for innovation in Canada.”

In addition to Remix, the seven other companies in the program are:

Choose Life – Vegan Jamaican patties with clean ingredients led by a York alumna.
Culcherd – Dairy-alternative, plant-based cheese and butter.
Backcountry Wok – Dehydrated vegan meals in 100 per cent compostable packaging.
Nufs – Asian-inspired energy bites with high fibre and natural sweetness.
Leo & Co – A paleo, gluten-free bakery specializing in allergen friendly baked goods.
Oat Canada – Vegan oat drink with zero grams of sugar and no dairy.
GotBallz – Grain-free, sugar-free and low-carb buns co-founded by a York alumna.

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