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UCSC grad, thinking baby food should be local and green, wins $12,000 in startup cash

Article from The Santa Cruz Sentinel

By Jondi Gumz

Montessori preschool teacher Jackie Olin won a $12,000 competition for her... (Dan Coyro/Sentinel)

SANTA CRUZ -- Jackie Olin is convinced busy parents in Santa Cruz County are willing to pay a premium for organic baby food made locally. But she was floored when her business plan for Sustainabites won the top prize of $12,000 in a new competition sponsored by UC Santa Cruz and supported by the city of Santa Cruz.

"This is enough to get us going," said Olin, 27, a preschool teacher who graduated from UCSC last year with a degree in community studies and hopes to have her product on the market by summer's end.

Nearly 50 teams entered the first UC Santa Cruz Business Plan Competition.

Olin made it into the last round May 29 with a panel of Silicon Valley judges and six other finalists pitching high-tech solutions. She considered her idea for certified organic, seasonal, pureed baby food to be the "dark horse" in the contest.

She "knew her market and the food business," said her mentor, David Britton, who runs the Santa Cruz County Sustainable Business Network and serves as a small-business counselor with SCORE.

Not only did Olin have experience as a chef in New York, she knew about "farm to school" programs providing healthier school lunches thanks to campus internships with the Santa Cruz-based Community Alliance for Family Farmers and Berkeley Unified School Nutrition Services.

Researching other players in the baby food industry, she concluded her product would be fresher than Gerber and more local than Little Bug in the East Bay,

Tasty Baby in Malibu or Earth's Best, Happy Baby or Plum Organics, all based in New York.

She set her price at $4 for a 4-ounce container of fresh puree, which is more than Gerber and Earth's Best but less than Little Bug, Tasty Baby and Happy Baby.

When her mentor made suggestions, she listened.

"Jackie's resolve and dedication were evident many times when we knew our chances were slim but possible," Britton said.

She expects a $17,000 profit by the second year, assuming 10 distribution outlets and 100 customers weekly with another 40 signed up for home delivery.

Susie O'Hara, a Santa Cruz mother of three including a 1-year-old, called Sustainabites brilliant.

"Where it's produced is important to our family," she said, noting they receive fresh produce weekly from Community Supported Agriculture. "I tried to make my own baby food but I have less and less time. This means I will have one less thing to worry about."

The business contest brought town and gown together, with more than 150 people on campus to see the winner chosen.

Like the popular "American Idol" competition on television, the audience played a part, voting on the "People's Choice" award.

Judges included Krishna "Kittu" Kolluri, co-founder of Healtheon/WebMD, T. Chester Wang, developer of the first Chinese-American shopping and community center, and venture capitalist Judy Owen.

Guest speaker Philippe Kahn, who built the first cell-phone camera and chairs Fullpower Technologies in Santa Cruz, shared stories of his roller-coaster ride in business.

"Do you think you're going to be more successful because you're lucky or smart?" Kahn asked. "I'll pick luck any day."

After being ousted by the directors of Borland, his first company, he made his own luck, creating Starfish Software, which was acquired by Motorola for $325 million.

The competition, open to UCSC students and alumni who graduated in the last two years, was the brainchild of Eric Gonzalez, a UCSC business management major who graduated in March. He was so busy planning the event he did not have time to enter himself.

James Davis, a professor of computer and information science at UCSC, obtained $15,000 to fund the competition from a UC Office of the President program to promote partnerships between UC researchers and California companies.

The city's economic development department contributed $5,000.

City of Santa Cruz staffers served with university employees on the steering committee that identified a knowledgeable industry mentor for each semi-finalist. Eric Ornas of Satori Labs in Scotts Valley advised Sky is the Limit, a biotech solution to combat counterfeit drugs; Tom McKay, formerly of RF Micro Devices in Scotts Valley, counseled Route2Me Technologies in developing a planner for mobile devices to help people using public transit save time.

"We've been able to forge stronger links between the local business community, campus and the city and have made great progress in establishing a culture of entrepreneurialism on campus," said Peter Koht, the city's economic development coordinator.

"This is a really important step forward in terms of the university and city working together," said UCSC economics professor Nirvikar Singh.


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