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Siena Development: A Thriving New Home in the Finger Lakes

Amber Adams and John Zuccarello, the co-founders of Siena Development, were looking to open a second lab location in the Finger Lakes to supplement their existing food and beverage product development operation on Long Island. They began talking to the team at Cornell Agriculture and Food Technology Park (Tech Farm) in early 2020, but their plan took a very positive detour to the Finger Lakes.

“We were envisioning a satellite office to work on specialized projects with some of the professors,” explains Amber. “We just signed the lease at Cornell when we started hearing about Covid outbreaks happening in New York City. Within one week, the city went into shutdown.”

The pandemic forced them to alter their plans, resulting in a shift that has produced unforeseen benefits for the company and the Finger Lakes. Instead of opening a branch, they moved their headquarters to Geneva. “This is one of those things that we did not intend to happen, but fate had something different in mind,” says John.

Fateful Matches

In addition to the unusual circumstances that led to the match between Siena and the Tech Farm, Amber and John have a fun story to tell about becoming business and life partners. Both independently purchased a discounted fencing lesson in New York City. They showed up on the same day, which coincidentally happened to be Amber’s birthday party. “I joke that God and Groupon brought us together,” John laughs.

John had extended family in the food industry who, knowing he had a background in biochemistry, asked for his help with product development and stability. This was the catalyst for John moving into the food industry. At the time he met Amber, he was interested in launching his own product development and consulting firm. John learned that Amber was working grueling hours as an audio engineer for Broadway productions and was ready for a job that provided more work-life balance.

“One of the things that struck me about Amber is that she is very, very methodical. She has a strong set of project management skills and also thinks about things in a much larger, complex type of way. It was just a natural fit.”

Siena started working with clients on product development and shelf-stabilization projects, services few companies were providing at the time, and later extending their services to include custom ingredient creation and small-scale manufacturing. Projects ranged from packaging for start-ups to product development for multinational corporations.

John also realized that the 6,000 square foot facility on Long Island wasn’t suitable for some new projects they wished to undertake. For example, a project they were handling required a more extensive HVAC system than the company’s facility could accommodate, while their location separated them from the agricultural community where many innovations are taking place.

They saw the Finger Lakes as a better fit for their company and themselves personally. Having grown up in the city and on Long Island, John wanted to connect more actively with the agriculture community. Amber saw Geneva as a reflection of her upbringing in an Ohio college town.

In September 2020, Siena moved its headquarters to Geneva, temporarily mothballing a co-packing line bottling clients’ beverages at their Long Island facility. The move allowed the company to focus on developing products for their customers, a shift that has seen the firm enjoy significant success.
Fueling innovation

Among Siena’s recent client successes is Seir Hill, an alcohol-free spirits producer based in Connecticut. Siena worked to develop its non-alcoholic whiskey, tequila and rum alternatives. Biscane, the rum alternative, took home a gold medal at the 2022 Los Angeles Spirits Awards, one of only six non-alcoholic spirits or ales recognized that year.

Siena specializes in complex, challenging product formulations. One example is their formulation for Synapse, a caffeine-free nootropic energy drink that was selected as a finalist for PepsiCo’s 2020 Greenhouse Accelerator Program, by taking bitter herbs and other typically unpalatable ingredients and turning them into a lightly sweetened base syrup. The company created a process to solve solubility issues Synapse faced for some of the ingredients.

While beverages are where it began, Siena has also developed cookies, ice cream, oatmeal, jerky, and other foods for its clients.

Collaborating with Cornell

What really gets the pair excited is the ability to partner with Cornell AgriTech and the NY State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture, and the opportunities those partnerships create. Amber and John envision continuing strong collaboration as their relationship evolves because of Siena’s years of experience commercializing food and beverage products and Cornell’s knowledge, research, and contacts.

“We see the tremendous potential to collaborate. It seems like it is really electric,” says John. “The more we get involved with the food side of Cornell, the more different opportunities arise from cross collaboration. It has become an organic relationship that keeps growing. Being close to Cornell allows us to see a lot of new and exciting research up close, and then use our expertise in product development and commercialization to bring that research into real-world applications for ourselves and our clients.”

They received first place in the New York Concord Grape Innovation competition with their new company, Stil-Bène, which combines the product development talents and commercial experience of Siena Development with the cutting edge research into gut health by Dr. Elad Tako of Cornell University. Their innovative new product is a powdered dietary supplement to promote gut health, using upcycled ingredients from the grape industry. The product reduces the negative environmental impact from food waste, while improving the health of consumers.

John grew up under the shadow of his father’s commercial waste transfer station. Prior to its sale to Waste Management, it processed over 60% of NYC’s commercial demolition waste. This instilled a lifelong passion for recycling and the environment, which John is eager to apply to the up cycled food movement.

The company has also embraced working in an academic environment. They are currently working with Dr. Elad Tako and Cornell AgriTech to research other potential uses of grape pomace – the skins, seeds and other solid remains left over after the fruit is pressed – and routinely work with Cornell graduate students to offer them real-world situations.

“There’s a lot of ‘pushing the envelope’ with the research at Cornell, and that’s a big part of where our passion and excitement is, as a company and as people,” says Amber. “We want to be involved in innovative things happening in food that help with sustainability and take food science to another level.”

A Welcoming Growth-Focused Culture

The transition from city operation to Finger Lakes company was challenging but alleviated by key personnel within the Cornell community. Rajni Aneja, Managing Director of the Cornell Institute for Food Systems Industry Partnership Program, played a key role in not just getting the co-founders to consider a move to Geneva, but also helping to integrate the company into the university’s community.

“Rajni has gone over and above, not only welcoming Siena to the Cornell ecosystem but also opening our eyes to so many different opportunities and so many different collaborations. Without her help, we would not be where we are or feel so excited about continuing this pathway with Cornell,” says John.

Another key figure is Catharine Young, the executive director of the New York State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture, a hub connecting businesses and entrepreneurs across the state. Her enthusiasm for the region impressed Siena’s co-founders, and her continuing assistance has benefited the business. “She’s not only makes herself available, but she’s helped guide us to the next level of evolution,” says John.

Catherine sees fertile ground for Siena thanks to the innovative research and product development happening at Cornell and its affiliated agriculture and food science partners. “A good example of what we want to do is take new information about nutrition and new information about what’s capable with products to create something that can really be transformative for people in terms of their gut health and their overall health, while also being good for the environment.”

Through the Center, Siena taps into a network of farms and other producers when the company needs an ingredient. As John explains, “It’s really a synergistic fit on multiple fronts. I like being close to the farms. I like seeing the amount of effort, energy, and innovation that goes into actually keeping a farm running.”

With plans to expand to a larger space at the Tech Farm and bring co-packing back online, Siena looks forward to continuing to grow here in the Finger Lakes. “This is where we want to be. This is a place where we can grow, work with the community, and really expand,” concludes John.

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