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  • Center of Excellence in Food and Agriculture
Siena Development Group only planned to open a satellite lab at the Cornell Agriculture and Food Technology Park (Tech Farm) in Geneva. That all changed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Connecting to Cornell

Siena Development Group started in New York City in 2015 and had expanded its food and beverage product development business into a 6,000-square-foot facility in Long Island when the Covid-19 pandemic brought them Upstate.

Co-founder John Zuccarello met with Cathy Young, executive director of the New York State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture (COE) and COE business development specialist Ed Maguire in early 2020 to discuss Siena working with the COE to open a satellite lab inside the Cornell Agriculture and Food Technology Park (Tech Farm) in Geneva, a New York state-certified business incubator that provides the space, mentorship and other resources to help early-stage companies grow.

Zuccarello said he saw the potential neighboring Cornell AgriTech offered in terms of cutting-edge food and agricultural research, innovation and connections to other businesses.

“I didn’t realize how many amazing things were happening on the Cornell AgriTech campus,” he said.

The company signed a lease. That was on March 16, 2020, the day public schools across New York City closed and restaurants across the state closed their dining rooms due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When they returned to New York City from Geneva, the city was effectively shut down.

Following a return trip to the Tech Farm that summer, the company decided to turn that satellite lab into their new home. In September 2020, Siena Development moved its entire operation into the Tech Farm.

“We saw the tremendous potential [at the Tech Farm] to collaborate with other producers,” Zuccarello said. “It seemed like it was really electric.”

Fueling innovation

While the move forced Siena to put its copacking line in storage for the time being, the company has been busy doing research and development for companies ranging from startups to massive, multinational companies.

Among its recent successes is Seir Hill, an alcohol-free spirits producer based in Connecticut that Siena worked with to develop its non-alcoholic whiskey, tequila and rum alternatives. Siena developed Biscane – the rum alternative—in the Tech Farm and crafted a pilot batch of the alcohol-free spirit.

The entirely Geneva-made elixir took home a gold medal at the 2022 L.A. Spirits Awards.

Siena also developed the formula of Synapse, a caffeine-free nootropic energy drink, by taking bitter herbs and other typically unpalatable ingredients and turning them into a lightly sweetened base syrup. Siena also created a process to solve solubility issues Synapse faced for some of the ingredients.

While beverages are their forte, Siena has also worked to develop cookies, ice cream, oatmeal and other foods. Much of their work is kept under wraps and behind non-disclosure agreements.

Future in the Finger Lakes

Siena plans to take over a larger space in the Tech Farm and put its packing line back into production, but already they’ve proven to be a valuable part of the Cornell AgriTech ecosystem. They’re currently working with Cornell AgriTech in research into 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.

Through the COE, Siena has been able to tap into a network of farms and other producers when the company needs an ingredient. When Siena offers a service that another company needs, they’re ready and willing to help. They work with the Cornell Food Venture Center (CFVC), a team whom Zuccarello called “the best in the world” when it comes to ensuring the food safety of the products they develop.

“It’s really a synergistic fit on multiple fronts,” Zuccarello said.

When the time comes for Siena to expand, they’ll be doing so in the Finger Lakes. Siena has 10 full-time employees and hires an additional eight to nine workers on production days. Zuccarello said the quality of labor he’s found in Geneva has been exceptional.

“This is where we want to be,” he said. “This is a place where we can grow, work with the community and really expand.”

Zuccarello credited Young, whose enthusiasm for the area he said helped draw the company up to Geneva, for helping guide Siena’s growth.

“She’s not only made herself available but has helped guide us to the next level of evolution,” he said.

Jacob Pucci is the marketing and communications coordinator for the New York State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture at Cornell AgriTech.

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