Bonumose to set up Hershey research plant at former State Farm HQ

An Albemarle County start-up that seeks to create an artificial sweetener for the mass market will set up shop at the former regional headquarters of the State Farm insurance company.

Governor Ralph Northam was on hand to announce that the firm Bonumose will partner with the Hershey Company to research and develop reduced or zero sugar chocolate.

“This is a $28 million investment that Bonumose is putting forth in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Northam said. 

Ed Rogers is the chief executive officer and co-founder of Bonumose, which was formed in 2016 and currently operates out of the University of Virginia’s North Fork research park.

Using a $256,000 grant from the Commonwealth’s Opportunity Fund and $300,000 from the Virginia Investment Performance Grant program, Bonumose will move to a portion of the State Farm site.

“It’s an important milestone, 36,000 square foot building,” Rogers said. 

The former State Farm building is being marketed by the firm CBRE

Bonumose is betting that its technology can provide a healthy sugar substitute that can be produced at a price that can be affordable. Rogers said there’s a lot of hard work to do to prove that the tech will pay off. 

“We are not so full of hubris that we think that’s going to be easy,” Rogers said. “I mean, sugar is great. Who doesn’t love sugar? I mean even if you hate sugar, you probably love sugar also. It’s the gold standard of sweeteners. It’s natural. It tastes great. It is functional. It provides structure to foods. It helps depress the freezing point so you have creamy ice cream. It caramelizes. It does all of these things in food so when you’re talking about replacing sugar, it’s just not a matter of replacing the sweetness.” 

Current sugar substitutes do not work as well in cooking, and can be much more expensive than the real thing. Rogers said the product Bonumose will make s based on tagatose, a naturally occurring sweetener. 

The Pantops facility will serve as a demonstration project and will provide at least 64 new jobs. Rogers said this only came about because the county’s Economic Development office approached the company with options on how to expand. Soon after the pandemic, State Farm said they would shift entirely to a teleworking model and would not return to the 365,000 square foot building. 

Economic Development Director Roger Johnson is fond of using code names for various projects that they are working on before the deals can be announced.

“Albemarle County had begun working with Bonumose well before the state die and we named this project internally Project Leopard, after Def Leppard’s hit song Pour Some Sugar On Me,” Johnson said. 

A rendering by Design Development for what the interior of the Bonumose facility will look like

(This article was originally posted in the October 15, 2021 edition of Charlottesville Community Engagement)

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