Janessa Steenberg is the first recipient of RIT Venture Creation’s Ignite initiative. The Rochester Institute of Technology student is the founder of Panacheeza, a plant-based Parmesan-style cheese startup.
Her focus on bringing the cheese product to market caught the attention of mentors at the Venture Creations business incubator.
Ignite is designed to target high-capacity, student-run businesses and allows the use of resources offered through the incubator including access to mentors, office space and funding, among others, officials say. Students can develop their business over a period of 18 months. Ignite is supported by RIT alums Jim Swift and Mike Browne.
“I saw a gap in the opportunities for students to take their ideas to the next level,” says Browne, founder and partner of Fiscal Partners, which provides expert bookkeeping, controller and advisory services. “Venture Creations was in need of a resource pool, and I thought this would be a great program to help foster. I was happy to be able to help work through the strategies to making this a reality. It’s truly a launch pad for our students.”
For Swift, CEO of information and analytics company Buxton, it was an opportunity to impact thriving startups.
“I don’t have specific expectations for the Ignite program, but I do have hopes for the program,” he says. “I want to provide an avenue for entrepreneurs to be able to navigate through the ups and downs.
“There is an intellectual, fact-based piece to this, but there is also emotion behind this,” he notes. “Be patient, yet urgent at the same time, if that makes sense. Entrepreneurs need to learn how to harness their emotions and, hopefully, we can help with that, too. Mike and I will do whatever we can to smooth out the bumps in the road.”
For Steenberg, it was the lack of options that spurred her to launch Panacheeza.
“Within the last five years, I became so frustrated with the lack of diverse Parmesan cheeses available, especially for those of us craving plant-based nutrition or with dietary restrictions,” she says. “So, I used my background in business administration—and culinary skills that I learned from my Italian grandmother—to make it myself. There just isn’t a better time than here and now to bring this product to market.”
Johan Klarin, director of Venture Creations, says the businesses are that ideal for the Ignite program are not hobbies, but committed operations. The program hopes to build bridges between student-run businesses and the incubator.
“We are immensely grateful to Jim Swift and Mike Browne for recognizing the need to encourage students to follow their entrepreneurial dreams, seek the necessary guidance, and drive those promising startups toward an in-house incubator that is able to give them the tools they require to thrive,” Klarin says. “This program is the pipeline that we’ve been searching for.”
Steenberg’s product, which targets semi-vegetarian flexitarians, is sustainable and a certified super food and contains only five ingredients: cashews, nutritional yeast, and three secret spices. It has the taste and crumbly texture of Parmesan cheese.
Steenberg plans to produce the cheese at a facility in Geneva next year. Currently, she is working on a pricing model.
“Earning this Ignite award was the first real recognition of my product from those who know how to run successful businesses. I’ve just scratched the surface of what I know and how far I can take this company,” says Steenberg, who is a recipient of RIT’s Gap Year Entrepreneurial Fellowship. “Venture Creations and the ecosystem of coaches are helping me map out where I need to go and how to get off the ground in this crucial acceleration period.”
She adds: “If we stay on this upward trajectory, we are going to completely disrupt the market. I want Panacheeza to be a household brand. There are infinite possibilities.”