Nightfood Holdings Inc., Tarrytown, N.Y., was named the grand prize winner of the Real California Milk Excelerator dairy innovation competition during a live pitch event on Nov. 18. The competition, created in 2019 by the California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB), Tracy, Calif., and New York-based VentureFuel to fuel innovation in new dairy product development, is a global search for the very best emerging products to bring to market using California milk and dairy ingredients, the CMAB said. As the grand prize winner, Nightfood will receive $150,000 in resources and funding to bring its sleep-friendly ice cream novelties to hotel locations across the United States.

As presented by Founder and CEO, Sean Folkson, a self-identified night snacker and former insomniac, Nightfood's mission is to help nighttime snackers around the world satisfy their hard-wired cravings in a better, healthier and more sleep-friendly way. The company recently completed a successful pilot program with a leading global hotel chain to introduce Nightfood ice cream pints into hotel lobby shops across the country. Excelerator prizing will be used to help grow distribution for a novelty version of the ice cream in the hospitality channel, the CMAB said.

"I'm honored for Nightfood to be selected by the CMAB, VentureFuel and the panel of industry-expert judges as the first-place winner in this year's Excelerator competition,” Folkson said. “Sleep is becoming a massive health trend, and many consumers wrestle with hard-wired nighttime survival cravings for calorie-dense foods like cookies, chips, candy and, of course, ice cream. Those high-sugar, high-fat snacks tend to be both unhealthy, and sleep disruptive.

“Nightfood helps consumers satisfy those prehistoric biological cravings in a better, healthier more sleep-friendly way,” he said. “With the help of the CMAB, we look forward to making Nightfood sleep-friendly ice cream sandwiches available in lobby shops in 20,000 hotels across the country."

Nightfood is one of four innovators selected from a field of 12 semi-finalist competitors to present to an all-star judging panel from the consumer packaged good, retail, venture capital, food science and media world, representing such companies as Albertsons Companies, Coca-Cola, Beam Suntory, My/Mochi Ice Cream, Whole Foods and more, in a live virtual pitch (and sample) event, the CMAB said. All four finalists represented products in the frozen dessert space — a market valued at more than $52 billion in 2020 and growing, driven by the rising demand for better-for-you dessert options.

Alongside the three other finalists, Nightfood was judged on uniqueness or innovation, taste, the ability to scale and the founding team. Sweetkiwi, Washington, D.C., came in second place and will receive $100,000 in support for growth and distribution of its low-calorie whipped frozen Greek yogurt that is formulated with fiber, protein and probiotics for better gut health.

"I am incredibly overwhelmed and excited that we were one of the chosen winners," said Ehime Eigbe, founder and CEO of Sweetkiwi. "It is such an exciting time for us, we're really pleased the judges saw the value in our innovation. We look forward to carrying the Real California Milk seal and being part of the California dairy family."

This is the third event of its kind by the California dairy industry. While prior years focused on fluid milk and snacks, the 2021 competition spotlighted products using the nutritional and flavor profiles of real milk and dairy ingredients to deliver performance and recovery benefits in products ranging from sports drinks to indulgent desserts, the CMAB said.

Twelve semi-finalists were selected from a field of 62 entries to move through the Excelerator process, receiving $10,000 worth of support each to develop an edible prototype. They also received a suite of resources, including graphic design, lab or kitchen time and elite mentorship from global marketing, packaging, investment and distribution experts representing a number of companies The total value of Excelerator prizing is more than $650,000, the CMAB said.

Finalists were chosen from the semi-finalists competitors during a two-day virtual pitch event judged by a group of experts from Hershey's, Nestle, Mars, PepsiCo Ventures Group, Amberstone Ventures, Branch Venture Group,, Rosa Brothers Milk Company, Health magazine, SnackRiot, and The Save Mart Companies. More than 2,000 consumers also were able to vote virtually through Perksy, which provides market research for the mobile generation, for the products they would most be interested in purchasing. An additional 500 consumers were polled through Perksy for the finals, the CMAB said, and those votes were included in the final tally.  

"Excelerator winners were judged as much for the founders and founding teams as for the products themselves, and we had an incredible group of competitors this year,” said John Talbot, CEO of the CMAB. “Nightfood stood out because it really nailed the performance and recovery objective of this year's competition, and they have a solid plan for owning the sleep space. We look forward to partnering with Sean and Ehime to bring both Nightfood and Sweetkiwi's functional dairy desserts, fueled by Real California dairy ingredients, to the larger marketplace."

Fred Schonenberg, CEO of VentureFuel, called every product entered a winner.

"Our mentors helped each accelerate, and in the end, over 2,000 consumers and the 24 expert judges chose these amazing two winners,” he said. “CMAB and VentureFuel continue to assist all of the companies that made it into the program — so expect to see many of these participants on a shelf near you very soon."

To that end, CMAB and VentureFuel recently hosted a private retail buyer/investor event to introduce the finalists to the market, which resulted in more than 20 one-on-one meetings with key industry decision makers. The program also included a multi-week Incubator Boot Camp for idea-stage companies not quite ready for the main Excelerator program, CMAB said.