Students win business plan competition with aims to improve shelf life of produce

South Dakota State University Extension
Farm Forum

BROOKINGS, S.D. — South Dakota State University students Matthew Cole, Logan Wolf, Nolan Lee, Jordan Traub-Jensen, and Kendal Schreier won the second annual Brookings Student Business Plan Competition recently held at the Research Park at SDSU. Their business idea, called Prairie BioTech, would improve the shelf life of produce in grocery stores using a compound from canola meal.

Cole is a graduate research assistant in the department of agricultural and biosystems engineering from Kranzburg, S.D.; Wolf is a biotechnology major from Sioux Falls, S.D.; Lee is a microbiology major from Minneapolis; Traub-Jensen is a human biology and chemistry major from Sioux Falls; and Schreier is a graphic design major from Belle Fourche, S.D. The team is mentored by ZhengRong “Jimmy” Gu, an agricultural and biosystems engineering professor, and Bill Gibbons, a professor, associate dean for research for the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences, and director of the South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station.

The team received $3,000 for first place in the Brookings Student Business Plan Competition to help develop their business plan. The competition started with 21 teams of SDSU students and seven teams were selected as finalists and pitched to a panel of judges.

The competition takes place over four months with students participating in training on writing a business plan, developing financial projections and are offered a community mentor to share real world experiences with them. Students also receive support from coalition partners including the South Dakota Small Business Development Center and Brookings Economic Development Corp.

For their business, Prairie BioTech, the team developed a technology to extract a compound found in canola meal that can improve the shelf life of produce in grocery stores. They discovered that a class of compounds called glucosinolates, when recovered from canola meal and then volatilized, has anti-microbial components that can be used to preserve produce. Glucosinolates are typically found in low levels in canola meal, but their presence limits the amount of meal that can be blended into livestock feed. Thus, a side benefit of the Prairie BioTech process is producing canola meal that is essentially free of glucosinolates.

“This technology takes a wasted product and makes it valuable,” Cole said. “It could really make a positive impact by providing new market avenues for producers and improving food quality for consumers.”

For their business plan, the team would begin by using the technology to improve the shelf life and safety of strawberries. “Strawberries are a high-value product in this area that are typically expensive and we want to improve their safety and shelf life,” Cole said.

The team is currently looking at making an oilseed-based biopolymer to capture the glucosinolates that would be used in place of the absorbent currently found in the bottom of strawberry packages to help keep them fresh. The oilseed-based biopolymer would not only absorb moisture but would also slowly release the glucosinolates to help preserve the strawberries over a longer period of time.

“We hope this technology would one day become well-used in fresh produce to protect high-value food on grocery store shelves,” Cole said.

While conducting research with Gu as an undergraduate student, Cole and Gu discovered the capability of the canola meal compound, glucosinolate, to improve produce shelf life. They were working to separate the compound from canola meal and found it had anti-microbial components that could be useful in preserving produce. Cole has been working on this research for about five years and Wolf and Lee have been involved for the past year.

Nick Carroll, an SDSU alumnus at ASI Industrial in Billings, Mont., worked with the team to help them develop a model for a pilot plant for Prairie BioTech. The team is currently exploring several options for setting up a pilot plant in Brookings.

The Brookings Business Plan Competition is sponsored by Eide Bailly, First Bank & Trust, POET, Research Park at SDSU, SDSU College of Engineering, SDSU Office of Research and Economic Development, Woods Fuller Shultz & Smith.

Logan Wolf, Matthew Cole and Nolan Lee with judges for the Brookings Student Business Plan Competition. The team won first place for their company called Prairie BioTech.