Listen to a radio segment about the 2016 Ag Innovator of the Year

Each year for more than a decade, the AURI Board of Directors bestows the Ag Innovator of the Year Award, its highest honor, on the client company or entrepreneur it feels created a major impact in the areas of product innovation, uniqueness and commercialization potential. This year AURI was pleased to name Kay’s Naturals as the Ag Innovator of the Year.

Kay’s Naturals is a Clara City-based company that creates healthy snack foods that meet the nutrition needs of diabetics, those trying to lose weight and a general population that needs healthier food. AURI provided nutritional analyses of various products, assisted with product development and facilitated open innovation and networking opportunities. The collaboration was an ideal fit for AURI, whose scientists and agriculture professionals foster long-term economic benefit for Minnesota by assisting small- and medium-sized food producers develop viable, innovative and environmentally responsible ways to bring products to market.

“We are proud to have played a part in such an impressive success story,” said Shannon Schlecht, AURI Executive Director. “Kay’s partnership with us for technical assistance demonstrated the company’s commitment to make a better product, and that advances Minnesota’s position as a state that’s driving innovation in the value-added agriculture sector. It’s particularly gratifying when the end result also helps improve the quality of life for so many people – not just here but throughout the nation.”

Kay’s CEO Massoud Kazemzadeh is a processed foods expert who founded Kay’s Naturals in 1997 to develop foods to help diabetics control their weight and blood sugar. But a bigger market found Kay’s, as medical weight-loss programs, including Johns Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic, embraced its “Build Muscle, Not Fat” mantra and incorporated Kay’s products into their healthy eating and weight-loss regimens. At the same time, sales took off to individuals looking to lose weight or simply eat healthier. Today, Kay’s Naturals generates revenue in the low-seven figures via sales in more than 9,000 stores throughout the United States.

Each Kay’s mini-meal – including a selection of cereals, snacks and pretzels – contains as much protein as three eggs, is low in calories and fat and contains no gluten. The company also offers a complete, flavorful and hunger-satisfying daily diet plan that meets all daily nutritional needs at a weight-losing intake of 1,200 to 1,400 calories.

Products are manufactured in Clara City in a state-of-the-art facility that, to meet stringent guidelines and international standards, operates under the Certification of the Global Food Safety Initiative and the British Retail Consortium. It is one of few companies in Minnesota with certifications for kosher, organic and gluten-free that can produce both baked and extruded products such as gluten-free cereals and pretzels.

With the National Institute of Health’s assessment that more than 100 million Americans are overweight and 40 million more are morbidly obese, Kazemzadeh recognizes the business opportunity but is equally interested in the altruistic one.

“Obesity is far too prevalent, and it’s a particular burden on young people and the impoverished. We want to find a way to improve those statistics,” he says. “I’m happy to say we’re in vending machines in some of the Chicago public schools and in Connecticut schools statewide. We’re also interested in re-focusing on foods for diabetics, which is why we got into this business in the first place.

“Americans consume 6.5 billion pounds of snack foods a year. If there’s ever been a mountain of opportunity to improve lifestyles and health, this is it.”

AURI awarded its first Ag Innovator of the Year in 2003. Previous winners include EarthClean Corp. of South Saint Paul (2015) and Midwest Ag Enterprises of Marshall (2014), among others.