Small suppliers: TLC for infant business ideas An innovative Incubation Centre is helping food manufacturers find their feet says Julian Hunt Newcomers to the food industry often find it impossible to get their business ideas off the ground. But Loughry College in Cookstown is helping hatch a new generation of successful entrepreneurs at its Small Business Incubation Centre. Opened in January 1998, the EU sponsored £3.5m centre aims to turn pipedreams into commercial reality with eight separate, self contained, manufacturing units where companies can test out their concepts before investing in full scale production. Rents are heavily subsidised and tenants get a unit equipped with temperature control, air conditioning and CIP systems, plus an intake area, chilled and ambient storage rooms, processing area, chilled dispatch store and office. Shared facilities include a central phone system, boardroom, and bulk chillers and freezers. Companies can also link up with experts based at the college's new £4m Food Technology Centre. The Incubation Centre has already bred plenty of success stories. Take Faraway Foods' Nisha Tandon and Farah Chowdhuri who first approached Loughry in 1998 looking for help in developing a range of authentic tasting Indian style snack foods. They worked with Loughry's Food Technology Centre to develop recipes and undertake small scale production trials, before moving into the Incubation Centre. Jacqueline Richardson of Potato Pleasures came up with the idea of turning local culinary favourite champ into a ready made product for supermarkets and approached Loughry. Working with the college's Food Technology Division, and the local Tesco team, the company was able to refine the recipe, test the suitability of potato varieties and work out a production line and packaging methods. Following the trials, it moved into the Incubation Centre to launch a range of champ products under the Tesco label. Halfpenny Gate Meats is another start up company using the facilities to develop ideas using specialist sous vide technology brought in from the US. The company is working on a dual ovenable beef roast as well as a range of deli meats, including Louisiana blackened beef, Canadian smoked beef and Irish spiced beef. Founder Mervyn Kinloch is convinced he would never have got his business off the ground without the help of the centre because there were simply no food standard business units available in Northern Ireland. Building from scratch would have been too expensive for the new company and it would have limited the cash available for equipment. "We have been able to buy brand new kit which means we can have serious discussions with the multiples and sandwich companies," says Kinloch. Customers told him that the company's microwaveable beef roast should be frozen and ovenable, so he worked with the Food Technology Centre to tackle these issues as well as a more convenient packaging format. A year on, Kinloch has one supermarket deal in the bag and his deli meats are generating considerable interest from major sandwich manufacturers. The incubation unit at Loughry is just that and once firms find their feet they are expected to stand on them. For many, that day may not be too far away. - Loughry College is the largest centre for education and training in food technology in the UK. The college has 500 students and helps more than 200 local businesses each year. {{Z SUPPLEMENTS }}