Held appropriately enough on International Entrepreneurs’ Day, a celebration was held at the new chocolate-stuffed marshmallow manufacturing facility that will be bringing s’more than 130 jobs to the Lehigh Valley.
The brain child of entrepreneur, Mike Tierney, who just celebrated his 30th birthday last week, Stuffed Puffs is the newest manufacturer in a growing field of food manufacturers in the Lehigh Valley.
Already operating out of The Factory incubator in Bethlehem and manufactured in Wisconsin, Stuffed Puffs will be able to drastically increase production in the new 150,000-square-foot plant at 3900 Burgess Place in Hanover Township, Northampton County. The added production capacity will allow Stuffed Puffs to grow from its current exclusive partnership with Walmart to be available in retailers nationally by mid-2020.
The building was developed and is owned by J.G. Petrucci Co.
Having moved from Scottsdale, Arizona to the Lehigh Valley to take advantage of the services of The Factory, which provides capital, testing space and mentoring to startups in the food and pet industry, Tierney said the success his company is now experiencing was a long time in coming.
Speaking to a crowd gathered at the facility launch, Tierney said the idea actually started around a camp fire about 11-years ago, when he was a freshman in college.
While making s’mores he thought it would be so much easier to make the sloppy but tasty treats if he could make marshmallows stuffed with chocolate.
“I wasn’t the first person with the idea. I probably wasn’t even the 100th person with the idea,” Tierney said.
What he did have is persistence, “or stubbornness” he quipped. He never let the idea drop and eventually found venture capitalists willing to back him.
“I don’t know if they saw the vision or they were just degenerate gamblers,” he said, but they gave him the backing he needed to start researching how to make product.
The big challenge came in trying to find a supplier. He said plenty of people he talked to said they liked his concept, but it had been tried before and always failed.
But he persisted, and eventually caught the eye of Walmart, which was willing to give him a contract.
He was ready to roll, but as it turned out – getting those chocolate centers in the marshmallows was as difficult as people predicted and he couldn’t fill the order.
He said it was Richard Thompson of FreshPet fame, and the other partners in The Factory that came to his rescue.
Thompson had already invested in another one of Tierney’s ventures, Mikey’s Better Food Baking Co., and he offered him the support of the Factory to help develop the new product.
“The thing about Richard and the Factory is that this is more than just a private equity fund. There are plenty of people out there with capital to invest. What’s great about Richard is his experience and his willingness to help with startups,” Tierney said.
Thompson said he was drawn to Tierney’s energy and determination and knew that he could help Stuffed Puffs not only become a successful product, and a significant employer in the region, he would help inspire others to bring their startups and build the synergy that is growing in the Lehigh Valley’s food manufacturing industry.
He also noted that The Factory isn’t the only assistance that Stuffed Puff and Tierney are receiving. The Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development has stepped forward with a number of grants, loans and tax credits to get the facility up and running.
Tierney also made a famous friend to help promote his product. Internationally known DJ Marshmello is partnering with Stuffed Puff on marketing, a deal Tierney said he was able to make after “email stalking” the DJ’s manager and business partner, Moe Shalizi.
Shalizi said he had already been in negotiations for the DJ to market a major, well-known marshmallow brand when he finally broke down and opened one of Tierney’s many emails and was impressed enough that he turned down the big brand to align with the Stuffed Puff startup.
“We’re both young and we both have an entrepreneurial spirit, so we decided to join in on the ride with Mikey,” Shalizi said.
DJ Marshmello will be using his various digital platforms and fan base to help get the word out about the new stuffed marshmallow product.
Stuffed Puffs are already in stores and Tierney said he hopes to have his new factory up and running and staffed by summer of 2020, with the first batch of Lehigh Valley-made marshmallows shipping by mid-July.
Biggie the dog’s first trip to the veterinarian became an “aha” moment for his owner, Ben Seidman and, especially, for Biggie himself.
“He really didn’t like it,” said Seidman, recalling the lab-pit bull-boxer’s animated response and apparent displeasure at having his temperature taken.
“Me and my wife said ‘hey, there’s got to be a better way for millions and tens of millions of dogs that are going to vets every single year.’”
It was the kind of experience that inspires innovation and growth in the nearly $73 billion-and-growing U.S. pet care products industry according to the American Pet Products Association.
Seidman, who lives in Chicago, and business partner, Yale Zhang, who lives in New York City, are two of many who would like to grab a slice of that pie.
They co-founded a company called Mella Pet Products in part to develop a reliable alternative to the ubiquitous thermometric goosing that has long stoked fear among the Biggies of the world.
Mella was one of 10 companies, out of more than 100 that applied, to be invited to the inaugural Pet Innovation Challenge in Bethlehem Oct. 2-3.
That two-day event allowed so-called “entre-pet-neurs” to not only showcase and pitch their products, but to meet investors and collaborate with other businesses and industry experts in hopes of learning how to fuel their emerging pet brands.
The event was sponsored by Boulder, Colo.-based New Hope Network, a company best known perhaps as the force behind the Natural Products Expos West and East in Anaheim and Baltimore respectively each year. They are the Super Bowl and World Series of the natural products industry.
It was held at Factory LLC, a defunct steel mill-turned business innovation center on Columbia Street near Lehigh University, SteelStacks and Northampton Community College’s Fowler Family Southside Center in South Bethlehem.
Factory LLC founder Rich Thompson said innovators forge on even when others say it can’t be done.
“When something is new and different you just can’t buy it off the shelf and
you just can’t bring in 20 people who have done it before and say here’s how you do it,” he told the participants. “So, you have to stay on the innovation side of things.”
Each of the 10 companies invited to the Pet Innovation Challenge were built on the idea of improving pets’ lives in an environmentally friendly, humane and sustainable way, and each was proposing a unique solution.
Seidman hopes Mella will become the, “Apple of health care for pets.”
“Finding an alternative to rectal thermometry is just on one of our goals,” he said. “We believe that many of the techniques and practices currently used in the veterinary space are archaic, and new methods combined with new technology can reduce the stress and anxiety both pet owners and their pets feel about veterinary visits.”
Chicago-based Shameless Pets was there too. It hopes to turn millions of pounds of wasted food each year in America into pet food.
Berkeley, California-based Jiminy’s, and Takoma, Md.-based Chippin, aim to create nutritious, protein-rich foods and snacks from crickets and other insects that can be raised and harvested with minimal disruption to the environment.
Still another company, Hachi Tama based in Japan, came to promote its high-tech, smart cat litter box that can help detect chronic kidney disease and more effectively control odors. Growing Industry
The modern pet care product industry is seemingly recession-proof, fueled by health and nutrition-conscious millennials who regard pets as family, who care about how those pets feel and care what they eat. They also crave environmentally friendly, sustainable, healthy, humane and clean products.
“Even in 2008 when the economy was sucking, the pet industry was continuing to grow,” said Dr. Katy Nelson, an Alexandria, Va.-based veterinarian who hosts and produces “the Pet Show with Dr. Katy,” which airs on television in in the DC area.
Nelson, who spoke to Challenge participants Oct. 3, said the relationship between humans and pets has changed over the ages.
“For centuries we trained them for protection and herding and hunting. Now they’ve gone from skulking around the campfire to literally sleeping in beds with us,” she said. “So, obviously that changes how we view these animals.
“A lot of millennials are putting off having children and their pets are taking the place of having children, so they are ready to spend,” Nelson said. “They want to feel good about it. It’s as much about feeling as it is about the product itself. And after next year we think we’re going to hit $96 billion that people spend on pets just here in the USA. That’s just absolutely incredible.”
Problems and solutions
Jiminy’s, a Berkeley, California-based company attending the challenge, is trying to answer the call for sustainable, healthy pet food.
Founder and CEO Anne Carlson said dogs consume more than 32 billion pounds of protein annually. “It’s just not sustainable with traditional protein sources,” she said.
Crickets, on the other hand, are sustainable, easy to raise, highly digestible forms of protein, said Carlson.
Barn-raised crickets use 67% less land than chicken, and 93% less land than beef. One five-ounce bag of cricket treats saves 220 gallons of water over what it would take to create an equal-sized bag of treats made from traditional protein sources.
Hardly any greenhouse gases are produced by crickets, Carlson said.
And harvesting crickets is a less disturbing affair, too, he said. The insects are cooled down and enter a kind of hibernation before being harvested.
In January, Jiminy’s will roll out two new products: Cricket Crave and Good Grub, a product made from grubs. “We’re really excited about it,” Carlson said, “and so far the dog reaction has been amazing.”
About half of all dogs and cats will develop digestive problems, according to Holly Ganz and Carlton Osborne. They started a San Francisco-based company called Animal Biome that designed a test that can unravel the undiagnosed digestive mysteries that plague some animals and often lead to their early demise.
All you have to do is send them your pet’s poop.
“Your pet’s waste is the best indicator as to how they’re feeling,” the company states on its website. “A healthy gut creates good poop, and good poop prompts a thumbs up,” it continues.
One investor, who asked to remain anonymous, came to the event “looking for young, hungry entrepreneurs,” and added that the pet products industry is full of them.
Pet products are one of the biggest categories in any supermarket,” said Thompson who not only hosted the event but was a potential investor.
Thompson knows a thing or two about pet products. He was the CEO of New Jersey-based Freshpet for nearly six years until his retirement in 2016, and was the CEO of The Meow Mix Company from 2001 to 2006.
Now in his role as CEO of Factory LLC, he and his team have $250 million of investable
capital to acquire meaningful equity stakes in high-potential food, beverage and pet health companies.
The Pet Innovation Challenge showed, if nothing else, that the industry is thriving with innovation and potential, according to Thompson.
“It’s the humanization of pets,” he said. “Pets used to live in the backyard, but now they live in your house.”
Thompson would like to see the next big pet product company end up in Bethlehem and that Factory LLC could help stoke the flames of success.
While the 10 companies hoped to woo investors, they were also eager to get important feedback from them about blind spots in their evolving business plans, and possible solutions.
“We’re an early stage startup entering our critical growth phase and we’re looking for industry partners as well as funding, and so this kind of exposure to potential identify partners and investors is why we’re here,” said Animal Biome’s Osborne.
Attending the challenge “allowed us to get insights from people with amazing backgrounds in the industry,” said Ganz, also of Animal Biome.
Animal Biome wasn’t looking for scientific feedback. “We had that,” Ganz said. “We needed the business advisory board and this is really helping us to fill this big gap.”
Carlson agreed. “I love it when somebody from the outside takes a look at what we’re doing because everyone comes at things with different levels of expertise.”
And then there was Mella, whose unofficial motto, Zhang said, is “measuring your dog’s temperature does not have to be a pain in the butt.”
“No one’s happy,” Seidman told the event crowd. “Vet technicians have scratches all
over their arms, parents are upset in waiting rooms, and most of all the pets are not fear free.”
The feedback from other businesses and pet experts was crucial, Seidman said.
“We examined how to best educate pet parents as to why a Mella Thermometer will be beneficial to them. We had excellent input from multiple participants. We walked away with dozens of potential blind spots to consider as well as many solutions we had not thought of before.
For example, one of our team members suggested we target specific communities such as “pet moms,” high-needs dogs/cats, and even social media influencers in order to narrow our base and grow,” Seidman said.
With existing manufacturing facilities like PetFresh and Ocean Spray operating in the Lehigh Valley, and Keurig Dr. Pepper operations on the way, the region is fast becoming a hub for food, beverage and pet care industry manufacturing.
Pet food and pet care industry is a booming industry nationally, with growth expected to continue.
And so, The Factory, a manufacturing industry startup incubator in Bethlehem, which focuses on the food, beverage and pet care industries, is attempting to put the Lehigh Valley on the pet care industry map with an event planned for next month.
The Pet Innovation Challenge, a two-day event, is being organized in cooperation with New Hope, a promoter of natural foods expos. The event will bring thought leaders, innovators, experts and investors to Bethlehem to discuss challenges in the pet-care industry and solve them.
“What we’re trying to do here is bring together innovators and experts in the industry to share challenges they are facing and match them with solutions,” said Tara Ortiz, director of entrepreneurial engagement for The Factory.
On day one, 10 pre-selected pet health companies will kick off the event with a live pitch slam competition. The presenting brands include:
Animal Biome, microbiome testing and supplements for health and wellness.
Because Animals, a biotechnology company creating pet food made with cultured meat.
Chippin, the “Beyond Meat of Pet Food.”
Hachi Tami, a smart-cat litter box that offers early detection of chronic kidney disease.
Jiminy’s, dog food and treats using insect protein.
Maranda, veterinary-approved lab tests from home.
Mella Petcare, a first-generation thermometer that allows non-rectal temperature readings.
Obe, a patented pet health and wellness system using smart technology for personalized dog wellness and nutrition.
Primal Health, a patented, clinically-proven drinkable dental prebiotic.
Shameless Pets, the first brand to focus on upcycling within pet treats.
“These brands represent the most innovative and advanced trends in the pet health industry,” Ortiz said.
On day two the 10 pet-health brands will present their biggest challenges to the larger group, and assign attending participants to groups based on their experience and skillsets to brainstorm and collaborate on finding real-time solutions.
Awards will be given out for best ideas and best collaboration.
The top winner of the pitch slam will receive a cash prize, six months of entrepreneur services from The Factory, and a free booth at New Hope Natural Products Expo East 2020, a major natural product event.
By hosting such events, The Factory, hopes to establish the Lehigh Valley as a hub of pet, food and beverage expertise, Ortiz said.
“We have all of these experts and a good place for the creation of that hub here at The Factory,” she said.
The event will also feature a keynote address by animal health expert Dr. Katy Nelson, veterinarian and host and executive producer of “The Pet Show with Dr. Katy,” who will discuss the state of the pet industry, and her work with pet-related companies from Fortune 500 corporations to pet start-ups.
The Pet Innovation Challenge will be held Oct. 2 and 3 at The Factory in Bethlehem. The limited ticket event is open to the public, all proceeds will go to the Center for Animal Health and Welfare.
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