This past week, The Spoon hosted the first-ever Food Tech Fireside event, a live conversation between our editors, notable food industry figures, and with some participation from the audience itself (you can listen to a podcast version of the conversation here).

To kick off the series, Mike Wolf explored the topic of food accelerators with Peter Bodenheimer of Food-X and Tessa Price of WeWork Food Labs. And right from the get-go, the discussion prompted a question that, while seemingly basic, confuses the heck out of a lot of people: What’s the difference between an accelerator and an incubator?

Worth noting ahead of any discussion about the terms is that they do overlap to some degree in this day and age. As Bodenheimer said during the event, they’re “interchangeable in certain aspects.” That caveat aside, you can usually tell the difference between an accelerator and an incubator by the companies they accept into their programs.

In other words, it’s all about the stage of growth at which participating companies are.

As their name suggests, accelerators help move existing companies along, or as Price said, “the goal is to work with earlier stage companies who are looking to accelerate their growth.” WeWork’s newly launched Food Labs is one such program. Other notable names include Y Combinator, TechStars, and AngelPad. For most companies participating in these or any other number of startup accelerators out there, the common denominator is that there’s an actual business already in place — that is, there’s actually something to accelerate.

If there isn’t, or if it’s more an idea than established business model, that’s often where incubators come in. “When you think of incubators and studio models, to me [the company is] a little bit earlier,” Bodenheimer noted. “So these may be companies that are not quite yet ready to commercialize. They’ve got the seed of an idea and now they’re working on how to build a little bit of a business structure around that.” In the food tech world, The Hatchery is one of the top incubators for startups and entrepreneurs.

Timeframe is another key differentiator. Typically, accelerators have a fixed time period for everything, from the application process to the actual program itself, which will run anywhere between a few weeks and a few months. And as Price pointed out during the event, a set curriculum is planned out for the duration of the accelerator program.

Incubators, on the other hand, don’t necessarily have an application process and take applicants on an ongoing basis from a variety of different sources. For example, The Kitchen incubator in Israel takes a portfolio approach to its companies, which it works with on an ongoing basis. Chobani’s incubator is another good example, as it focuses on finding compelling, disruptive ideas for the food system then helping companies turn those ideas into sustainable businesses. That said, Chobani is a also a great example of the interchangeable nature of incubators and accelerators nowadays. Traditionally, most incubators wouldn’t operate within a given timeframe; Chobani’s program runs for a pre-defined four-month period.

We’ll see more of those overlaps and nuances in future, and it’s likely the line between accelerator and incubator will get more muddled over time, not less. At the end of the day, finding the right fit should ultimately come down to what you want your company to be and whether a program can help you meet those goals.

Here’s a sampling what’s out there in terms of programs. Mind you, this barely scratches the surface, so drop any additions and suggestions into the comments below:

Food Tech Accelerators:
WeWork Food Labs
Y Combinator
TechStars Farm to Fork
The Yield Lab
The Good Food Accelerator
Accelerating Appalachia

Food Tech Incubators:
The Kitchen
Union Kitchen
Chobani Incubator
Kraft-Heinz Springboard
Nutrition Greenhouse
301 INC

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Jenn is a writer and editor for The Spoon who covers restaurant tech and food delivery, developments in agriculture and indoor farming, and startup accelerators and incubators. On the side, she moonlights as a ghostwriter for tech industry executives and spends a lot of time on the road exploring food developments in more remote parts of the country. Previously, she was managing editor of Gigaom’s market research department and was once a competitive pinball player. Jenn splits her time between NYC and Nashville, TN.

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