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Seed Work

Seed Work

Healthy snack company 88 Acres grows with help from a UMass investment fund.

Eight years ago, Nicole M. Ledoux ’01 had a life-changing moment. She watched in horror as her boyfriend, Robert Dalton, went into anaphylactic shock when he ate a nut hidden in a restaurant dinner. Dalton, born with a severe nut allergy, survived the ordeal, while the incident turned Ledoux into an accidental entrepreneur.

In 2015, she founded 88 Acres, which makes healthy vegan snacks free of the top food allergens and without gluten, GMOs, soy, or eggs. The Boston-based company now has 26 full- and part-time workers and sells its allergen-free bars, seed butter (made of sunflower, pumpkin, and flaxseed), and what Ledoux calls “seednolo” (granola without nuts and gluten) at 1,000 retail outlets across the country. 

Nicole Ledoux ’01 and Robert Dalton

Nicole Ledoux ’01 and Robert Dalton are building a snack-food business with help from UMass Amherst.

Photo by
Taylor Paige

“There are amazing days and really tough days,” says Ledoux. Some of the hardest days for 88 Acres are still ahead as she and Dalton, who married in 2014, attempt to conquer a national market with a dizzying number of competitors. A primary challenge was finding funds for market expansion and product development. They didn’t go any further than UMass Amherst to enlist a partner, receiving a $125,000 infusion from the Maroon Ventures Partner Fund—the first venture-capital fund at the flagship campus. Created in 2017, the fund is a $6 million for-profit investment vehicle created to support alumni, faculty, and student businesses in their early stages. 88 Acres is the fund’s first investment.

The idea of a business germinated during Ledoux and Dalton’s courtship. After the scare on their fourth date, Ledoux started experimenting with making nut-free food in her kitchen, eager to make allergen-free bars, especially energy-replenishing ones to help them cross triathlon finish lines. They soon shared them with other athletes, both with and without allergies, and saw that the bars had broad appeal. Ledoux quit her job as a fixed-income securities trader to become chief executive officer of 88 Acres. Dalton later joined the firm as the chief financial officer, leaving a career in the clean energy industry. 

As they launched their company, they followed principles of sustainability, inner-city economic development, and ingredient and supply-chain transparency. Dalton says, “For Nicole and me, this is primarily an extension of our personal values.” He remembers eating at the nut-free table in elementary school and says that the nonstigmatizing and inclusive 88 Acres brand is the antithesis of that isolating experience.

tapped-maple.jpg

Tapped maple tree

88 Acres products are made with New England maple syrup.

The first 88 Acres bars were sold in local Whole Foods stores; more recently, the 79 stores of New England’s Market Basket grocery chain began carrying them. “We knew that if we could not be successful in our own backyard, there was no way we would be successful elsewhere,” says Ledoux. Now 20 percent of sales come from their website or Amazon. Their products are also on shelves of a variety of retailers, such as airport shops in Chicago and Orlando and local food co-operatives. They have made successful forays into the cafeterias of corporate America, including Google’s Los Angeles office. They also supply products to the Boston Public Schools and institutions of higher education, including retail outlets at UMass Amherst. 

Seed Butter
Photo by
John Solem

In January, fueled by the Maroon Fund investment, the company began selling two new flavored seed bars and a fourth flavor of seed butter. “The Maroon Fund really helped with propelling the brand and getting a lot of momentum,” says Ledoux. The investment also came with boosters. Maroon Fund Managing Director Charles Johnson, associate director of the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship and an Isenberg School of Management associate professor, as well as members of the investment committee, have become champions for 88 Acres, says Ledoux. 

Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy and Paul Manning ’77, an entrepreneur and the president and CEO of PBM Capital Group LLC in Charlottesville, Virginia, spearheaded the formation of the Maroon Fund. Manning was an anchor investor, inspiring other alumni to invest. Says Subbaswamy, “This fund helps to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem on campus and will help those looking for opportunities to take their intellectual properties and ideas to create companies and jobs.” The fund complements the UMass Amherst Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship, a hub of resources for aspiring business people, and the campus’s Institute for Applied Life Sciences, charged with transferring scientific discoveries to the marketplace. Subbaswamy says the Maroon Fund will foster economic development by supporting new ventures. “I hope we can get to the point of several companies being spun off every year or every other year so that we have a good portfolio of businesses in different stages of development,” he says.

The 88 Acres base of operations in Boston’s Allston neighborhood includes open-plan offices lined with whiteboards and sometimes scented with cinnamon or other spices from the headquarters’ test kitchen. Loud high fives punctuate the quiet to celebrate the opening of a new account. The bars and seed butters are made a few miles away in the former Bornstein & Pearl Food meat factory, redeveloped by the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation as a food production center in one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. The 88 Acres bakery recently expanded to 5,350 square feet there; 90 percent of the employees are Dorchester residents.

88 Acres is now well positioned to grow, says Ameeta Soni ’82G, president of Altek Consulting Inc. of Lynnfield, Massachusetts, and a member of the Maroon Fund investment committee. She points out that 88 Acres has increased sales since the Maroon Fund investment, validating the fund’s decision. The taste and soft texture of its products are fundamental to the company’s success. “While it is really important to say, ‘Hey, this is good for you,’ if it doesn’t taste good, the product will not sell,” Soni says.

The Maroon Fund really helped with propelling the brand and getting a lot of momentum.

—Nicole Ledoux ’01

The Maroon Fund provides two other benefits to the UMass community: 20 percent of its investment profits will be donated to the campus, and a student advisory committee gives undergraduates real-world experiences in venture capital. A five-member investment committee makes final decisions, but students make recommendations after researching companies, meeting with potential fund clients, and attending investment committee meetings. “Participating on the student advisory board gave me a firsthand look at how early-stage investing is done and confirmed my interest in pursuing an additional degree or career in business and/or entrepreneurship,” says Zachary Vaneck ’18, a mechanical engineering major with a minor in engineering management. Another student advisory committee member, Kaylene Prior ’18, a finance major, says, “I got to sit in on a due diligence call with a company’s founder, which was great exposure to the more legal side of investing that we had not learned about in my classes.”

Now that 88 Acres has a foothold in the market, Ledoux, who majored in economics and legal studies, has many thanks to offer UMass Amherst. “I feel an enormous sense of gratitude. I feel like I owe UMass for providing me the tools and skill set to go out there in the real world and start to make something of myself,” she explains. She grew up in the small central Massachusetts town of North Brookfield on an 88-acre organic vegetable farm that inspired the company name. As her high school valedictorian, UMass Amherst offered her an impossible-to-resist financial aid package. “I think the opportunity to get an investment from the Maroon Fund brings it full circle,” Ledoux says.