RIT Venture Creations’ Ignite program identifies value in ‘cheesy’ start-up company

New initiative seeks out promising student entrepreneurs

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RIT student Janessa Steenberg is the first participant in the Venture Creations’ Ignite program, which identifies promising start-ups and allocates resources toward company growth. Her company, Panacheeza, manufactures plant-based Parmesan-style cheese.

We’ve all been there — sitting on the couch watching television when you say to yourself, “Why didn’t I think of that?” But the difference between most of us and extraordinary entrepreneurs is that innate desire to take a great idea and make it happen.

Rochester Institute of Technology student Janessa Steenberg did exactly that with her plant-based Parmesan-style cheese start-up company, Panacheeza. As a result, she is the first recipient of Venture Creations’ Ignite initiative, which gives promising entrepreneurs the power they need to become successful business owners.

“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 said. “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.”

It’s that drive that sparked the interest of mentors from RIT’s Venture Creations business incubator and gave Steenberg, an applied arts and sciences major, the courage to apply for the first spot in the Ignite program. 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. Students get roughly 18 months to develop their businesses. The program is supported by RIT alumni Jim Swift ’88 (mechanical engineering) and Mike Browne ’84 (accounting), both of whom have successful careers and a passion for fueling entrepreneurship.

“I saw a gap in the opportunities for students to take their ideas to the next level,” said Browne, founder and partner of Fiscal Partners, which provides expert bookkeeping, controller and advisory services. Browne has also taught courses through RIT’s Simone Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “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.”

Swift, CEO of information and analytics company Buxton, has a great deal of field experience and was searching for a way to impact thriving start-ups. 

“I don’t have specific expectations for the Ignite program, but I do have hopes for the program,” he said. “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. 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.”

Venture Creations Director Johan Klarin said the Ignite program will continue to build bridges between student-run businesses and the incubator.

“The businesses that we’re searching for are not hobbies, but are fully committed businesses,” explained Klarin. “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 start-ups toward an in-house incubator that is able to give them the tools they require to thrive. This program is the pipeline that we’ve been searching for.”

As for Panacheeza, Steenberg believes she has perfected the recipe. Her product is not only sustainable and a draw to those who identify their lifestyles as semi-vegetarian flexitarian, but is a certified super food and contains only five ingredients — cashews, nutritional yeast, and three secret spices. “It crumbles and tastes just like traditional Parmesan cheese. Ask my three kids. They literally fight over it. I have buckets of my cheese in my fridge.”

Steenberg, who is a recipient of The Gap Year Entrepreneurial Fellowship through RIT’s School of Individualized Study, has done market analyses, officially incorporated the company, launched the website, and has conducted blind taste tests in which she reports that her cheese over-performed. She will be producing her cheese at a facility in Geneva, N.Y., in early 2023. She is currently working on her pricing model, which promises to be competitive, and adjusting her ratios with the manufacturer.

“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,” added Steenberg, who is married to RIT alumnus Ryan Steenberg ’09 MS (medical illustration). “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.”

And Steenberg is thrilled when she thinks about the future. “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.”

Go to the Panacheeza website for more information and to sign up for company news.

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