Gies Business cooking up food science entrepreneurs

The Ketotizit! startup team explains that they benefited from collaboration with Gies Business students as their Keto Kups product gained acclaim.
The Ketotizit! startup team explains the benefited from collaboration with Gies Business students as their Keto Kups product gains acclaim.

No one on their team knew much about the Ketogenic diet, let alone had any personal experience using it. So when these food science majors were assigned to develop a keto-friendly product, there was a lot of learning along the way. What they’ve developed is a product, Keto Kups – and a startup called Ketotizit! – that could have big business success thanks in part to a new collaboration with Gies College of Business and the Origin Ventures Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership.

“I don’t exactly know how the cup came about, but it did. And it just worked,” said Keelin Frank, a senior food science major and Ketotizit! team leader.

Keto Kups are individual cups with creamy buffalo filling and a crispy, low-carb crust. Originally modeled after quiche cups, they started with spinach artichoke, and eventually settled on buffalo chicken flavor. Each Keto Kup is 320 calories, 28 grams of fat, 13 grams of protein and only four grams of carbohydrates. They’re perfect for the ketogenic diet, which is a high-fat, low-carb diet. It forces the body to burn fats rather than carbohydrates.

Frank and her team’s startup called Ketotizit! were named winners at the “Food Innovation Product Pitch,” in which seven teams of students presented their novel food items to a panel of judges. The entries ranged from vegan pot pies to breakfast biscuits perfectly suited for people suffering from Alzheimer’s. The December 12 event was the culmination of FSHN 466, where food science students spent the semester developing new food products that solve professional food science problems, such as accommodating many different conditions or dietary needs.

Keto Kup PictureThis semester, though, brought a business twist to the classic food science course. Professor Dawn Bohn brought an entrepreneurial component to the course, in which seven undergraduate business students from Gies College of Business consulted with the food science teams and provided advice about consumer awareness, supply chain factors, unique distribution channels, and improved product marketing techniques.

“Since food innovation is extremely consumer driven, the development of successful novel food products cannot be optimized by scientists alone. The Gies Business student mentors provided each team with new, business-related perspectives throughout the development process,” said Bohn. “In my opinion, while our food scientist students have excelled year after year in the scientific approach to food innovation, incorporating business mentorship this year enabled the teams to gain valuable new insights across a greater spectrum of the food innovation process.”

Patryk Swietek, a senior information systems major, advised Ketotizit! on several aspects of their product, including market research survey results and specifically how to pitch Keto Kups to the public and potential business partners.

“I love helping bring products into the hands of people,” said Swietek. “Any type of opportunity to work with the brightest minds from any college and helping make their creations into businesses is an amazing experience.”

One important way Swietek helped Ketotizit! was encouraging them to use trendy, popular ingredients that could make their product more marketable. Charlie Stahurski, senior food science major and Ketotizit! team member, researched hemp hearts, and found they were a great fit in taste and texture. They’re also very popular with consumers. It’s an important ingredient they may not have been able to incorporate without Swietek’s help.

“We were coming more from a science and nutrition perspective, but Patryk forced us to think about our selling points and marketability,” said Stahurski. “We had to go back to the drawing board a bit to find trendy ingredients and discover what people really wanted in their food. I think that set us on track to developing a really good product.”

Keto Kups LogoKetotizit! will take their Keto Kups to this spring’s Cozad New Venture Challenge, a program through the Technology Entrepreneur Center that encourages students to innovate and create new businesses. In 2018, Cozad teams competed for more than $225,000 in funding and in-kind donations.

“It’ll be a great experience. It’s something unique and new for us being food science students in a venture competition,” said Frank. “We’ll need to make sure our product and our pitch are strong.”

Each of the two winning teams from the “Food Innovation Product Pitch” received $1,500 in capacity funding to continue development and production of their food. Both winning teams also move on to future competitions. In addition to Ketotizit! competing in the Cozad New Venture Challenge, the other winner – Crumb On! – will submit their Poppable Planets product to the Institute of Food Technologists Smart Snacks for Kids competition. There they will compete for up to $3,000 in prize money.

“This course collaboration was a perfect opportunity to infuse entrepreneurship education with an emphasis on social purpose into an effective food product development capstone,” said Valeri Werpetinski, Associate Director for Entrepreneurial Education with the Origin Ventures Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership at Gies College of Business. “This collaboration is also a significant opportunity to engage the thriving food entrepreneurship ecosystem in Chicago, which has been attracting substantial investment in food industry startups.”

Jordan Buckner (MBA ’14), a Gies alumnus and CEO and co-founder of TeaSquares, delivered the keynote address for the product pitch event and provided inspiration for students to pursue their ventures. TeaSquares is a food startup based in Chicago that creates energizing snacks and supports a social mission of fueling economic development and employing young adults from low-income and underserved communities.

The Origin Ventures Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership provides cross-campus leadership to support entrepreneurship education and social innovation. Werpetinski believes this partnership is an important inclusive entrepreneurship initiative. As the FSHN major comprises mostly women, this could promote more gender diversification in the current entrepreneurship ecosystem.

This innovative collaboration between Gies College of Business and the College of ACES was supported by the Office of the Provost Teaching Advancement Board’s 2018 Faculty Retreat Grant Program. The grant proposal was co-written by Clinical Assistant Professor of Business Administration Candace Martinez. It’s a way for Gies Business to expose students across campus to the vibrant Illinois entrepreneurship ecosystem and allow them to explore alternative career pathways in entrepreneurship in the food industry. Swietek, already an entrepreneur himself, believes Ketotizit! has the right ingredients for success.

“Ketotizit! has a fantastic team behind it. Simple as that,” said Swietek. “Products can always be pivoted, and business strategy can always change, but you need the right team behind the product to be able to do that.”

Frank and Stahurski admit they had never given much thought to the business aspects of food science, but as they both consider futures in food product development, this cross-collaboration with Gies College of Business will provide a valuable perspective moving forward.

“Absolutely,” said Stahurski. “It’s been such an amazing collaboration.”