Some UNC-Chapel Hill MBA students have joined forces to solve a key problem in the food industry.
After talking with a friend who worked in that industry, Sample VU Co-Founder Rhett Ferrin learned that companies are finding new product development especially difficult during Covid. Along with Co-Founder Mark Whitmire, Ferrin envisioned a project-management software solution to help companies create new products.
The idea snowballed, and now Sample VU is taking part in the Launch Chapel Hill accelerator.
Ferrin said it’s surprising how complicated the process can be for a company like Coca Cola to make a new flavor of Cherry Coke for example. There are many iterations back and forth. Pre-Covid, everyone would sit in a test kitchen with suppliers, take samples and get immediate feedback. But that’s not the case anymore.
“Since Covid, the system is really broken,” Ferrin said. “Everybody’s working remotely. They can’t get together in the kitchen anymore and get that feedback. We were amazed when we dug into some of our interviews how this process is in the dark ages, digitally speaking.”
Ferrin compares it to the elementary school game of telephone. With so many phone calls, emails and Google Docs across so many different stakeholders, it’s easy for communication to get lost along the way. Sample VU’s project management tech tool can be applied to get everyone on the same page.
“Covid’s forced everybody into this remote environment,” Ferrin said. “Things that we took for granted in the past, like being able to sit together in a room and brainstorm or sit in a test kitchen and try a whole bunch of samples in an afternoon, are no longer possible. When you have potentially millions or billions of dollars worth of decisions based on the feedback you get from those meetings, it becomes really important to find an alternative.”
For other companies, the pandemic was a force that brought along pivots. But for Sample VU, it was the disruptor that created a deeper need for the type of product Sample VU is creating.
“It’s been helpful because we think remote work is here to stay, and these workers need the tools to do their job,” Ferrin said.
Since they began working, Sample VU has evolved its theory on just who an ideal customer is. They’ve realized it’s not just the consumer packaged good brands or Coca Colas of the world they’re after. Since it’s a collaboration tool, Sample VU will be just as beneficial to suppliers as well.
Trimming the failure rate of new food products
The failure rate of consumer products is high, coming in at around 90 percent. Creating a new large-scale product can take 12-18 months, involving 20-40 people and costing between $3-$5 million, Ferrin said. But at the same time, there’s more demand for new food products than ever, with gluten-free food restrictions and high-protein or dairy-free food preferences becoming more accepted in the mainstream.
“This overall trend of moving to hyper personalization with food isn’t going away, which means there’s going to need to be more product development, more insights, more of a streamlined process,” Ferrin said. “That’s really where we want to help the industry. We want to help bring better products to the market and help people live their best lives.”
The goal is for Sample VU to reduce the number of iterations companies have to go through before getting their new products in consumers’ hands and ultimately reducing the massive failure rate for consumer packaged goods.
Sample VU hopes to launch its full MVP in June and then work to add features and users as they expand outside of North Carolina. So far, they are working with three North Carolina company pilot users. Through the whole process, Ferrin said he has appreciated the Triangle tech ecosystem, where everyone is willing to engage with them to help them move forward.
“People are so willing to make time on the calendar,” Ferrin said. “Everybody’s busy, but they’re looking to make time on their calendars to meet with students and really have this give-first mentality.”
One of their greatest resources, Launch Chapel Hill, has provided a strong framework for building a business around a real problem and understanding the size of the market, Ferrin said.
“Being in Launch Chapel Hill opens up this whole universe of decisions,” Ferrin said, “and it starts with the customer.”