Pasta startup Banza wins big prize at this year’s Accelerate Michigan

When they started handing out the big checks at the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition last week, the biggest went to small food startup working out of an old tax foreclosure in Virginia Park.

Banza, which makes gluten-free pasta, won the grand prize worth $500,000 in seed capital at Accelerate Michigan, the most prestigious business plan competition in Michigan. The firm has come a long way, and it's done so a lot faster than most people thought it would, including its founders.

"We totally did not expect to win," says Brian Rudolph, co-founder of Banza. "From our perspective (Accelerate Michigan) was geared toward tech companies. We have some intellectual property, but we are not the gold standard for tech companies."

Brian Rudolph formed Banza with his brother, Scott Rudolph, in January of 2014. At the time Brian was a fellow with Venture For America, a Teach For America-style program that pairs promising college graduates with startups in economically challenged cities like Detroit.

The Rudolph brother’s big idea was making gluten-free pasta from chickpeas. They aspired to make Banza to pasta what Chobani (a popular brand of Greek yogurt) was to yogurt. By August of last year they were launching Banza and had boxes on store shelves by January 2015.

Banza is headquartered out of an century-old mansion renovated by members of the first class of Venture For America fellows based in Detroit. The group, working under the name Rebirth Realty, bought it at Wayne County Tax Foreclosure Auction in 2013. They spent the next year renovating it and moved in late last year. A couple of the startups co-founded by members of that first class are also based out of the house. Many of them spent months saving money eating free boxes of Banza that were edible but deemed not worthy for store shelves.

Banza is the startup taking off the fastest in that house. Its pasta can now be bought across the U.S. and its team has grown to eight people. Banza raised a $1.3-million seed round in March and is working with a Michigan-based manufacturer to pump up its production.

"We have been break-even or cash-flow positive since (landing the seed round)," Brian Rudolph says. "We plan to use it to increase our capacity."

Banza recently increased its production capacity by 60 percent. It is now working on plans that could double or even triple its capacity next year. Banza can currently be found in 1,700 stores across the U.S., mainly in regional retailers like Meijer, Jewel Osco (Chicago area), and Sprouts Farmers Market (California).

"It has been a good, quick start," Brian Rudolph says. "We're starting to build some density in the Northeast and we have some good density in the Detroit area. We also are building a lot of density in California."

Source: Brian Rudolph, co-founder of Banza
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.
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