Soybean contest sprouts into careers
Before Ryan Howard, BS '99, set foot on Purdue University's campus to study in the School of Agriculture, he knew he wanted to own a business. But in order to fulfill this dream, he had a great deal to learn while in college.
Howard majored in food process engineering, and like the typical engineering student, his day was packed with lectures, quizzes, tests, labs, studying and the occasional few hours of sleep. But Howard didn't want to be a typical engineering student; he wanted to stand out among his classmates.
During his junior year, Howard heard about the Student Soybean Utilization Contest, which is co-sponsored by Purdue Agriculture and the Indiana Soybean Board. The competition, one of three student soybean product development competitions in the country, challenges teams of students to develop and market a new commercial product using soybeans. Howard knew he should take advantage of this opportunity, because it could set him apart from other engineering students. He did, and it did.
Howard, the 2000 Outstanding Student in Agricultural and Biological Engineering, partnered with Faye Mulvaney (who earned her pharmacy degree from Purdue in '03), for the competition two years in a row. The duo won first-place both times - for a soybean-based ski wax in 1998 and soy protein gelatin in 1999.
"When beginning a project like this, you start with a blank slate," Howard says. "College students all have imaginations, but it is difficult learning the development process and educating yourself on the industry to see what new things are needed out there. It is not as straightforward as going to the kitchen and following a recipe. There is no grade. This is real."
Today, Howard is grateful he participated in the competition, now in its 10th year at Purdue, and says he owes many of his successes to the soybean contest. One such success is that he got a job as a project engineer with General Mills in Chicago right out of college. But by night, he worked on the business plan for his health food company. Howard, who is a strict vegetarian, wanted to develop a new soy milk. Most soy milk is made on the West Coast from soybeans shipped there from the Midwest. Howard decided that it made sense to start a business in Chicago, close to soybean markets.
Howard balanced his career and personal business to save money for equipment and start-up costs. He worked out of his home, and his business partner and good friend, Dan Ziegler of Indianapolis, drove to Chicago every weekend to help make batches of soy milk and deliver the product to health food restaurants and cafes. After doing this for two years, Howard left General Mills and focused his energy on the business while doing odd jobs on the side to make ends meet.
Now 26, Howard's entrepreneurial dream has come true. His company, We Love Soy, officially launched the Chicago Soydairy division in June 2003. The business has moved into an office, and at the beginning of 2004, Ziegler joined Howard full time. The two are beginning to launch their soy milk in grocery store chains in addition to making and selling soy ice cream and soy cheese.
"This has been a lot of work, but it has also been a great deal of fun," Howard says. "The soybean competition gave me the confidence to go out and develop a product and really helped push me to start my own business. Now, one of the coolest feelings is to be at a restaurant when a waiter or waitress takes out our product and uses it."
"This competition really makes students stretch themselves," says Lee Schweitzer, the agronomy professor who started the competition.
"They are pushed to see beyond what is already out there in the market and are forced to think about what could be done. It stimulates the students to have a broader vision. It really helps prepare them for what they will face in their careers."
It also teaches them a little about the rewards of entrepreneurship: The first-place team wins $4,500, with $2,400 for second and $1,500 for third.
After organizing the competition for three years, Schweitzer handed the responsibilities over to Bernie Tao, agricultural and biological engineering professor.
"Students who participate in the competition want more out of school than just going to class," Tao says. "The students want the challenge of finding a need for a product, researching what is already out there, and producing and marketing the product.
"Everybody wins with this competition. The contest has fostered new product ideas for the soybean industry and has inspired students to become future leaders in research and business."
Soybean contest continued on next page
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