Innovation competition spurs creative product development

A long-running student competition at the University of Guelph that promotes creative innovation for new product development marked its 25th anniversary at the end of March with its annual awards ceremony. 

The winners of Project SOY Plus 2021 included an anti-chafing cream made of soybeans, a vegan yogurt using chickpeas, and a dietary supplement infused with THC to combat stress and appetite. 

Why it matters: Finding new uses for Canadian farm crops can add value to commodities and drive new opportunities for entrepreneurs, startup companies and expanding businesses in the agri-food sector.

The competition started in 1996 as Project SOY (Soybean Opportunities for Youth) when University of Guelph alumnus and owner of First Line Seeds Peter Hannam wanted to harness student innovation to encourage new uses for soybean products and increase production and awareness of the crop. 

Last year, the program, now supported by Guelph’s Food from Thought program, was expanded to include other plant-based species and was renamed Project SOY Plus. 

“This marked a big year for Project SOY Plus — students worked on sustainability projects but had to do so under unprecedented circumstances by working remotely, but they have risen to the challenge,” said Malcolm Campbell, vice-president of Research at Guelph while hosting the virtual awards ceremony. “This is a great story of how students have been able to do great things despite the challenges of a pandemic year.”

Graduate students Domenique Mastronardi and ThiênAn Gillespie captured first place in the graduate student competition for their product called Cultured Plant, a vegan yogurt alternative made from chickpeas. 

Top honours in the undergraduate category went to Olivia Lennon and Sayan Ladhani, two varsity soccer players who teamed up to produce a soy-based anti-chafing cream to prevent irritation and heal inflamed skin. 

The diploma category was won by Ridgetown Campus students Keenan Devillaer, Tyler Curtis, Jackson Taylor, Jamie Herrington and Joseph Gruber, who developed cannabis extract infused dietary supplements to combat stress and appetite. 

Participants can continue developing their innovations into marketable products with support from the Research Innovation Office, Accelerator Guelph and the Hub Incubator Program run by the John F. Wood Centre for Business and Student Enterprise. 

The program has a track record of helping to launch success. Mitchell Rice, Sean Mitchell, and Timothy Shuh were Project SOY winners in 2019 who developed a vegan alternative cream liqueur called 5th Bean using fermented tofu whey. They’re hoping to have their product on store shelves this fall. 

In 2018, Jane Ong and Kamil Chatila-Amos won the graduate student category with a vegan cheese product. Products from their food company Neophyto Foods are now available online and in select stores across Canada. 

Dr. Amy Proulx is a professor and program co-ordinator in culinary innovation and food technology at Niagara College. In 2001, she was a University of Guelph food science student whose informal conversation with students in the Plant Science department about soy protein had evolved into a Project Soy contest entry. 

“The project was researching intriguing proteins in soybeans with remarkable bioavailability characteristics in meat, but it came from the root, not the bean. My course mentor was Dr. Don Murray, and he let me run with this project,” said Proulx. 

Proulx and her project partner didn’t win the competition, but Guelph plant science professor Istvan Rajcan encouraged her to apply to the Hannam Soybean Utilization Fund to continue her research into the potential of this protein for food purposes. She ultimately completed her PhD in food science at Iowa State University; the research she did there contributed to the development of synthetic plant hemoglobin, now used in the plant-based Impossible Burger. 

Today, the food science program at Niagara College that she helped build from scratch is marking its 10th anniversary. 

“In our program, we let students pursue passion projects and they can turn into successes,” she says. “You never know where a connection might lead you, so when these opportunities open up (like Project Soy), take advantage of them.”