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Sobotka Stories: Zoni Foods

The Sobotka Seed Stage Success Stories will introduce you to former recipients of the grants who share their experience and perspective. The Yale Center for Business and the Environment is proud of its alumni and aspires to build a robust entrepreneurial community around sustainability ideas.

Over the coming years, Zoë Lloyd (F&ES/SOM ‘17) and Nilofer Ahmed (SOM ’16) intend to make significant strides to improving the livelihoods and nutritious intake of students and working professionals. Their entrepreneurial venture – Zoni Foods (formerly Kitchen Table) – was founded with the social mission of enhancing accessibility to nutritious, plant-based food.

Plant-based frozen stovetop meal kits have the ability to reinvent cooking for today’s busy lifestyles. They are the perfect solution for those of us that are frantically busy, and that no longer have to sacrifice health for convenience. Particularly while in the midst of deadlines and deliverables. Zoni Foods produces meals that take under 15 minutes to cook on the stove and that are not microwaveable. They contain no artificial ingredients or preservatives, with low amounts of sodium, and are vegan-friendly. Effectively they are a full serving of a plant-based starch, with a plant protein side and a nut-based sauce. A sensible - and disruptive - substitute for microwavable TV dinners, take-outs, and meal kit delivery services, which can compromise your health, time and finances.

Zoni Foods has two further compelling characteristics within the market. Firstly, frozen produce is generally harvested when it is ripe and thereafter flash-frozen in order to lock in all nutritious benefits until consumption. Comparatively, some fresh produce is harvested before it reaches its full nutritious physiological state. In certain cases, ethylene is then used to artificially ripen select fresh produce to synchronize with the arrival in a grocery store. The consequence though, according to Zoni Foods, is that by the time some fresh produce reaches your refrigerator, 40-50% of its nutrients value may be lost. However, a frozen meal from Zoni Foods addresses this shortcoming and should have almost all of its nutritious value in under 15 minutes of stovetop preparation.  Secondly, animal agriculture has a significantly larger impact on land, water, and the atmosphere, as opposed to a plant-based diet. Particularly when one considers the detrimental effects of methane emissions from livestock which exacerbate the levels of greenhouse gases. Zoni Foods, therefore has tremendous benefits through its positive environmental externalities.

Zoni Foods was an existing venture with a minimum viable product (MVP) before applying for the Sobotka Seed Stage Venture Grant. However, like many startups, they faced capital constraints in order to expand. Therefore, after recently winning the grant funding, Zoë and Nilofer are now thrilled by the prospect of being able to finance their first line of commercial ingredients and kitchen space for their primary manufacturing line run.

One of the biggest challenges that the team has had to overcome was their ability to synthesize the science of freezing, commercial food product design, and food manufacturing. The experience has taught Zoë and Nilofer the level of detail that is required to bring a product to market. In the same breath, Zoni Foods has some profound advice regarding a MVP for future Sobotka applicants. Embrace the idea of “failing fast and often”. Zoë believes that by putting a product out on a small scale, you can garner vast amounts of valuable advice and feedback. This process allows you to learn and bounce back quickly instead of investing significant time and money too early in the process. Zoë and Nilofer conclude that by seeking the perfect product too early and for too long, you can make it difficult for your product to recover from unexpected surprises when it does finally reach the point of initial feedback.

Although Zoë and Nilofer both agree that Yale provides exceptional resources for entrepreneurial endeavors, they both believe that they would have benefited extensively from a larger co-working space exclusively for entrepreneurs to collaborate. Such an ecosystem would create a vibrant space for competitions, workshops, events, networking and ideation. Thankfully, though, Yale has recently announced the establishment of a Center for Innovative Thinking, which should help future aspiring entrepreneurs to foster similarly successful engagements which capitulate into ventures like Zoni Foods.

Follow the CBEY website for more Sobotka Seed Stage Venture Grant Success Stories.