An Aeronautical Engineer Turned Willy Wonka

Aerospace engineer Dan Preston has reinvented himself as a Brooklyn Willy Wonka

In 2009 aeronautical engineer Dan Preston sold Atair Aerospace, a $22 million business that designed parachutes for the military. Largely barred from the defense industry by a noncompete clause, Preston, who holds more than 100 patents, sought a new direction. He found one while surveying his family’s property in the Dominican Republic, which contained a few small cacao farms. Contemplating the multicolored fruit, he saw untapped potential.

Preston was struck by the lack of sophistication in the way cacao was harvested. He looked into controlling the fermentation process in a semi-sterile environment. As a result, he noticed, the chocolate was purer and more fragrant.

Having founded Cacao Holdings and completed a round of venture financing, Preston obtained a commercial distillery license for his facility in Red Hook, Brooklyn. In addition to chocolates, Preston began selling cacao-based rum through a company called Cacao Prieto, after his family’s original Spanish surname. Preston also formed Cacao Biotechnologies to conceive of health products derived from the plant, which is rich in beneficial compounds and antioxidants. Preston isn’t secretive about his innovations. Through yet another of his concerns, Brooklyn Cacao, he sells his custom machines to other would-be chocolatiers.

The transition from Defense Dept. contracts to the world of artisanal chocolates and liquors made perfect sense to Preston. “We went from one recession-proof industry—defense—to the only other two I can think of,” he says.

Preston’s Best Advice

1. Keep it dynamic

In creative endeavors, there’s always downtime, and your team will inevitably get bored. To keep the workplace engaging and dynamic, my strategy has always been to run multiple, overlapping projects.
2. Show me more than money
Money is easy to find, but good terms less so. It’s all about choosing value-added investors; be patient and go with what seems fair.

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