Affordable workspace is hard enough to come by in old New York when you’re an independent company on a shoestring budget. For independent food startups, it’s twice as difficult because it involves finding both office and kitchen space. Unless you have deep pockets and a good realtor, looking for either of makes getting your wisdom teeth removed sound fun.
To provide both and also foster young, innovative companies across the food chain, WeWork has launched WeWork Food Labs, an innovation hub for food companies that rolls physical workspace, programming, a startup accelerator, and a food industry community into one package. And, as the name suggests, it’s specifically aimed at startups across multiple areas of the food industry, from food robotics and AI to alternative proteins, new ingredients like CBD, kitchen appliances, and logistics — all areas WeWork suggests are areas ripe for disruption.
According to materials obtained by The Spoon, WeWork calls Food Labs “the first of its kind workspace and global platform dedicated to startups impacting the future of food.” The program is designed to help startups grow and at the same time tackle issues in the food industry that become more pressing each year: How do we feed a predicted 10 billion people worldwide by 2050? How do we do so while also lowering carbon emissions, cutting back the amount of land we use, and teaching consumers about chronic disease like diabetes and obesity?
Food Labs will use two different programs, or “tracks,” to work with companies looking to solve those issues (and others).
The first track is what WeWork refers to as its “continuous programming.” Pretty much any startup in the food industry is welcome to apply. WeWork will choose between 40 and 60 companies from the pool of applicants. Those companies then get get access to the WeWork Food Labs facility, which will be housed on the eighth and ninth floors of the WeWork offices at 511 W 25th St. in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.
The space will look and function much like a regular WeWork space, with both open and private desk areas, conference rooms, phone booths, and other WeWork office fixtures. In addition, Food Labs will also house an R&D kitchen, a photo studio, showcase space for CPGs, a mock merchandising area, and a tasting table. The rooftop will hold space for urban agriculture along with other green spaces. Startups working out of Food Labs will also have the chance to use the space for events.
While space is the biggest benefit here, it should also be noted that participating companies will, by joining Food Labs, get access to The We Company’s 400,000-strong body of members, all of whom are potential new customers. WeWork noted that “Food Labs can create massive impact by powering sustainable, accessible, nutritious and delicious food solutions for The We Company’s global community.”
Those companies selected to be part of the track are encouraged to hang on to their membership for at least one year. Given the lack of space in New York City for food businesses, I doubt that will be an issue.
You can see a few renderings of the forthcoming space at the end of this post.
Food Labs’ second track is more of a traditional startup accelerator format: a shorter-term program that helps startups move from one specific stage of growth to another. As is the case with most accelerators, selection criteria is more rigid here, and WeWork will select between six and eight companies to participate in each cohort. Selected participants take part in a five-month program and get opportunities for grants, equity investment, and follow-on funding. They can also use the WeWork Food Labs space sans membership fee.
For the accelerator, WeWork has allocated $1 million to be shared across the selected companies.
WeWork getting into the food innovation game isn’t completely surprising news. The company has long been a champion of cutting edge startups, and the food and beverage industry is teeming with them right now. As well, WeWork has tried to be at the forefront of certain movements in the food industry, most notably by cutting meat from its menu and meal-reimbursement policy in July of 2018, citing environmental concerns as the chief reason for the move. And the company invested in foodtech earlier this year by backing (an undisclosed sum) surfer Laird Hamilton’s superfood startup, Laird Superfood.
WeWork hasn’t yet chosen participants for its accelerator. According to a press release sent out today, the company is currently taking applications. Food Labs Programming kicks off in Spring 2019; the flagship space in Chelsea will open in October 2019.
According to materials sent to The Spoon, the NYC Food Labs location will be the first of several. There aren’t specifics yet, but Denver and Seattle are on the list of potentials, as are places where food insecurity is an especially an especially urgent issue to fix. For those locations, WeWork has said it will work with organizations like The World Food Programme and “propel innovation” and make food “more accessible, nutritious and sustainable.” Right now, that list of cities includes: Mumbai, India; São Paulo, Brazil; Belo Horizonte, Brazil; Barranquilla, Colombia; and Bangkok, Thailand.
Disclosure: The Spoon is a launch partner with WeWork Food Labs. Read Mike’s Publisher’s Note here to learn more about why we’ve teamed up with WeWork and the editorial standards we’ve put in place for coverage of WeWork Labs companies moving forward.