Summer 2017

A Boost for Food Businesses

A new entrepreneurship program will give students the skills they'll need.

By Julie Flaherty

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Marketing executive Jessica Deckinger's goal for her new entrepreneurship course is to leave students with "a really powerful skill set with real-world applicable tools." Photo: Anna Miller

A new twist on kombucha tea drinks. A social network for vegetarians. A personalized nutrition service based on your genome. Whatever the business idea, each budding entrepreneur had just 90 seconds to persuade a room of investors to hand over some $100,000 to fund it. “It works for a health-food market as well as a fast-food market,” said Ryan Egger, pitching his idea for healthy vegetable snacks. “I’m excited for AirChips to pop, and I hope you are, too.”

Even though Egger and the other aspiring moguls were students in the Friedman School’s Nutrition and Entrepreneurship course—the “investors” were their classmates, and the stakes were just a good grade on their final presentation—these elevator pitches were still stressful. It was the students’ chance to boil down what they had learned about starting a business, including the need for a clear and concise message.

Jessica Deckinger, the marketing executive who teaches the course, designed it to be a mini-incubator where students could grow their ideas, learning the philosophy of entrepreneurship and the practical steps to start a venture. Her goal is for students to leave the class with “a really powerful skill set with real-world applicable tools,” she said.

The course, a collaboration with the Gordon Institute of engineering management at Tufts, is the cornerstone of a dynamic new entrepreneurship program being developed by the Friedman School. It will match students with mentors at businesses, help them secure internships and introduce them to actual investors, said Dennis Steindler, co-director of the program with Edward Saltzman, the academic dean for education. Eventually, students will be able to enter their business plans in an annual competition offering start-up funding.

“Many students are aiming to have private nutrition businesses or have ideas for healthy food products,” said Andi Wolfgang, N16, cofounder of the company Nama Kiss and the teaching assistant for the course. “This class will help make those ideas a reality.”

Fostering entrepreneurship is a school priority. Even as students pursue their studies, “they can make discoveries that have value within the marketplace,” said Steindler, director of the Neuroscience Lab at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts, who has founded two companies based on his stem cell research. He said the Boston area, with its rich base of tech companies and rising crop of food companies, provides wonderful opportunities for students with innovative ideas for food, nutrition, diet and lifestyle products.

Some students in Deckinger’s class were already trying to turn their ideas into business ventures. Dorien Venhoeven, N17, a student in the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition program, wanted to create a healthy food-truck business in Ghana, where she worked on rural development. She was recently accepted into an incubator program to further develop the idea.

Other students saw themselves as the product they want to market. Angela Goscilo planned to start her own outpatient practice once she completed her dietetic internship. “You can be the greatest dietitian, but without some of those business skills in running your own practice, it won’t be as successful,” she said. Goscilo saw the elevator-pitch exercise helping her when, for example, she has only a short time to explain to a client the reasons to stop drinking soda. “If you can captivate them for one or two minutes, and use some of these pitching skills to convey your point, you are already making an impact,” she said.

Entrepreneurial thinking will be an asset even for students heading into academia or large corporations. “That creative, out-of-the-box thinking and problem-solving mentality,” Deckinger said, “is important in every aspect of what people do.”

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