With several major acquisitions by big brands in the last few months, including Hershey’s acquisition of Amplify Snack Brands for $1.6 billion, the Austin consumer packaged goods world is riding high.
One of the key drivers behind the growth of Austin’s CPG ecosystem is SKU, the consumer product goods accelerator in Austin. Founded in 2011, the accelerator’s alumni companies include well-known brands like Austin Eastciders, EPIC bars, Raven & Lilly, PridesBites and others like them that brought in $110 million-plus in combined revenue in 2016.
The incubator was founded by attorney Shari Wynne Ressler, who recently stepped down as executive director to pursue other entrepreneurial ventures, as well as the development of her entrepreneur-focused law firm RWR Legal.
Ressler helped grow the SKU accelerator from five companies in its first track, to upwards of ten in the upcoming sixth group, with a mentor and alumni network that reads as a Who’s Who of Austin. Her burgeoning law firm has also dealt with some notable Austin businesses, including Birds Barbershop and Student Loan Genius.
In her place comes Genevieve Gilbreath, a CPG veteran who has served as the managing director of SKU since October 2016.
Gilbreath’s experience in the consumer products industry stems from her background in health and wellness. She started two companies, Arogya, which manufactured natural health supplements, with a focus on manufacturing from Hawaii to Europe, and HerbalZap, an instantly dissolving herbal beverage company. She also worked in India, pioneering a bridge year program for Princeton University students, while teaching yoga simultaneously.
After her move back to Austin, she connected with Ressler and started consulting emerging companies, drawing from her experience in anthropology and design. Ultimately, it was easy for her to move into a leadership role at SKU, as she was able to create a strategic partnership with a company that took products from her company to trade, allowing her to do more in the CPG community.
Gilbreath has big plans for SKU in 2018.
“We already have a strong foundation at SKU, and, in 2018, we’re looking to take our accelerator model and scale,” she said.
Gilbreath said that while SKU used to be the only accelerator for CPG companies, organizations from places like Minnesota and Southern California have called her to ask how they can implement a similar accelerator-type program in their communities.
Among the biggest priorities for Gilbreath is finding strategic partners for the organization and for the companies that have comprised SKU’s various tracks. She noted that as the consumer products industry consolidates, it makes it harder and harder for small brands to make it to the stage where they are attractive to big businesses. Fortunately, companies like Land O’Lakes and General Mills are looking less at internal innovation, and more at acquiring younger companies.
“SKU is in a great position for that,” she said. “We had one company from Track 1 that already went through acquisition, and three others that are on track for acquisition.”
Perhaps the most important task for Gilbreath is increasing the activity around SKU’s annual Showcase Day, where graduating SKU companies tell stories of their brands to an audience of around 500 people. She wants to increase the amount of closed deals for the CPG companies involved, while also working to facilitate investment in the companies.
One of the biggest trends Gilbreath is noticing is the expansion of the intersection of the tech and CPG worlds.
“Our key for this year is helping tech investors get educated in the CPG world,” she said. “How you sell and how you market your product are getting closer and closer together, and we want to work to partner more with people in tech.
“We want to help answer the questions of how to get product to right consumer and how to create and market the product in a more detailed fashion to help consumers understand its use.”
We’ll know what companies are accepted into SKU’s Track 6 in early January. Will another Austin Eastciders or Pridebites be in the midst?