I have the greatest job in the world, and I am only qualified to do it by accident. I’ll come back to that in a minute, because it needs some setup.
I was good in math and science in high school, so I went to the top school for those two in Georgia (for an in-state full ride scholarship). I went as an undeclared major to freshman orientation, where I met an attractive woman who said she was going to become a Chemical Engineer (she graduated from a different school in Journalism). So I declared as a Chemical Engineer on the spot.
I spent the next 8 months figuring out what I had gotten myself into, and the coursework was common sense to me. First summer came around and a local carpet mill was hiring every engineering intern they could. I learned that summer that I didn’t want to work in textiles or in a mill.
I fell in LOVE with the Food Industry
The following fall, a fraternity brother (now Sr R&D Mgr at General Mills) told me to try something different and got me an interview with General Mills. I think I fell in love with the food industry during that very difficult interview. It was validated over the following two summers at their HQ. I loved (like found my calling in life, loved) applying science to food to make products that people would eat.
I was so enamoured by it that I declined a position with them to go get a Masters in Food Science at UW-Madison.
I met my wife at Madison while doing mixing simulation. Upon my graduation Campbell Soup hired me into the Process R&D group. There, I did some process research, but mostly it was scale up of all US retorted soups and performing endless (4-5 months?) system checks on a new multi-million dollar installation.
My wife finished her MDiv, and we moved to the Bay Area, where I started with Del Monte Foods as a Corporate Engineer. Basically, I had the same scale up responsibilities as Campbell, but also I had capital project execution, infrastructure projects, roofs, solar panels, design/build projects, new technology development, cost savings, pilot work, marketing coaching, financial planning, facility seating, site selection, co-packer development, patent publishing, etc.
Fell into becoming a Food Engineer
So basically anything a Food Engineer COULD do, I did. While I did this, my wife went back to school and got her JD from Stanford.
When the time was right to leave after 7.5 years, I went to Hampton Creek (now JUST Inc) for a year and half. I was brought into the organization to become the Food Engineering department. After some solo triage and firefighting, I grew my team and implemented development projects on all product lines. As the intelligent, creative organization came up with more projects than could be resourced or managed, I implemented project and program management to coordinate efforts. After a while, my wife and I decided it was time to move back to family in Wisconsin.
Starting a Startup!
Once here, I found that my unique blend of startup and corporate experiences did not serve me well to join any one group. I had years of experience in engineering project management, but I had also been a manager that had built and developed such a team. I was simultaneously over and under qualified for the same position. Thanks to my wife’s second career though, I didn’t really need to work, so I decided to pursue my passion: scaling up new products. That’s what I got into the industry to do.
So I did the bold, scary thing and founded my own group, Catapult Commercialization Services (to launch new food products, get it?), to help food startups.
I have a long list of skills that I can pull on to solve problems for people, and what I don’t know, I pass to my well-curated network within the industry. I’ve heard that some members of the industry write-off startups because they can’t pay well or they tend to be dynamic with unreasonable timelines.
I love the dynamic nature and variety of needs of startups, I know what best practices look like and when to apply them, and I don’t really need the money (I still monetize it so that startups are financially pressured to hire someone internal eventually to do the role). I just love new food products and solving problems. If I can spend more time commercializing products for passionate people, then I am happy!
It has been a lot of fun so far with far too many groups needing help and not being able to find it. I’ll probably look to expand beyond myself in the next couple months, so if you are looking to ride several roller-coasters all at once, keep an eye on my site and social media to see when it’s time to join me.
Author: Jamie Valenti-Jordan
Founded Engineering and Operations services organization to help Food/Bev startup companies get to market faster and stay there. Occasionally, also known to assist in market and license strategies for ingredient companies.
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