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Project SOY well into second decade

No end in sight to wealth of ideas.


In 1997, Peter Hannam and the University of Guelph jointly launched a program that reflected his long-standing belief that the soybean sector had to move into value added ventures in order to attain sustainable success. Together with his First Line Seeds marketing manager, Gary Lannin, and Owen Roberts and the university, Hannam made Project SOY an educational and development tool for students.

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Soybean growers will benefit from programs like Project SOY, a united approach that combines a unique vision with academic innovation and private sector support.

For Hannam, the original purpose was two-fold: one, to develop new uses for soybeans and year after year, the students have proved to be an integral source of ideas for that step. The second, and larger purpose was to raise the profile of the added value in soybeans. Through a constant stream of publicity for Project SOY and other developments like Soy 20/20, the profile has been raised. The initiative has won educational awards while soybeans have been recognized within the university and the general agricultural community for their vast potential across numerous sectors, including health and automotive.

That first year, despite there being only two participating organizations, more than 20 projects were entered in the competition. At first, Hannam thought it might be a one year phenomenon, given the number of ideas at its inception. Yet he concedes that he may have under-estimated both the innovative and competitive spirit of students. “I thought, ‘Wow, there won’t be anything left for the kids coming along in the next year’ and the next year, a whole bunch of new ideas came forward,” relates Hannam. In looking back, he realizes he was never really surprised at the students’ enthusiasm. “I’ve always believed and supported young people and their inquisitive minds, and their no-holds-barred look at innovation and new ideas.”

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Following the first year, other industry stakeholders and organizations realized the value being created with the program. The Ontario Soybean Growers and Maple Leaf Foods joined the effort by 1999, followed by the federal and provincial governments by 2001. Then in 2004, Monsanto acquired First Line Seeds and took a more active role in supporting Project SOY.

Students learn to do it all
Looking back at the previous 11 years, the only surprise for Hannam has been the extent to which students must apply themselves to their respective works. From first concept to researching their product or system, to marketing and promotions to commercialization, the list of tasks to be completed is quite exhaustive. “It’s far more complex than I first estimated,” concedes Hannam, who also launched the Hannam Soybean Utilization Fund to help students through the process. “Just developing a neat idea doesn’t mean it’s going to succeed, no matter how great it is.”

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A close-up on soybeans will yield more opportunity with a combination of innovation and industry vision.

Another challenge in bringing something to a commercial market is the relatively short time the students spend working together on their projects. Many of them are graduate students and find themselves headed in different directions at the end of an academic year. Thankfully, that is one aspect of Project SOY that is being examined in the hopes of changing for the better. Jamie Rickard, marketing manager with Dekalb/Monsanto, acknowledges the ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ quality of student life and talks about doing more to help students determine a product’s commercial viability.

“One way is to hold some workshops for the students, with the university, regarding intellectual property,” explains Rickard, who was first introduced to Project SOY when he worked with First Line Seeds. “We’ve also worked with the idea of getting someone like Tom Funk to hold a session with the students on marketing and developing a business plan.”

Rickard is trying to help the program through his business connections, putting some of the students in touch with individuals or company representatives who could potentially market products, including food
companies or Soy 20/20. He agrees with Hannam’s assessment about the lengthy process of bringing a product, no matter how innovative or useful, to market.

“If you think of just perfecting a recipe and then selling it and getting shelf space at a grocery store, you can only imagine how long it can take,” says Rickard. “Then you layer on top of that the patents that protect your intellectual property, doing the nutritional labelling and all the research around that, and it’s a lengthy process.”

All parties benefit
As important as it is and has been for students to have links to the industry, associating with the students has been a boon to people in the business. According to Rickard, prior to Monsanto’s involvement, there was little understanding of the potential for soybeans. “Our head office in St. Louis was more focussed on North American food applications,” says Rickard, noting the advent of Vistive soybeans as an example. “Project SOY gave Monsanto in Canada the insight to focus on new food soybean traits from our research pipeline and create opportunities for Canadian growers. These opportunities are enhanced by the identity preservation (IP) expertise of Ontario growers as well as the existing IP infrastructure.”

It is natural for Project SOY to have been developed at the University of Guelph, says Owen Roberts, director of research communications at the university. In the past decade, Guelph has been named Canada’s top research university four times and top comprehensive university six times in a row. Roberts sees that leadership position benefitting Project SOY.

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Peter Hannam’s commitment to value added ventures has helped considerably in raising the profile of the soybean industry in Ontario.

“When you look at the number of varieties of crops that have been developed from Guelph, it’s really quite amazing how productive university researchers have been,” says Roberts. “There’s a significant number of food products on the shelf that certainly have Guelph’s signature on them, such as Omega-3 milk, and many things with Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) attached to them at some point had some research connected with Guelph.”

Just as Rickard has introduced individuals with Monsanto to the potential of the project, Roberts has
tried to draw in members of the regional business community, many of whom help with the judging of the competition. “We also involve our business development office, so there’s the potential to develop the technology or the product further,” states Roberts, who is also academic co-ordinator of the Agricultural Communications Diploma Program. “If there’s that potential, then someone from the business development office can get the students some intelligence on the process, including protection of intellectual property.”

If there is approval from the business community on the product’s commercial viability and sufficient
student interest, then the university would help make the appropriate business connections.

Mentors so important to show the way
From a mentor perspective, Hannam, Rickard and Roberts all extend their appreciation to those involved with their expertise and support to Project SOY. “Food science professor, Dr. Massimo Marcone has certainly been the heart and soul of the contest,” says Roberts, adding that Marcone was
recognized for his contributions during Project SOY’s 10th anniversary celebration in 2006. “Others include Drs. Rickey Yada, Istvan Rajcan, Ralph Brown, Gauri Mitall and Chris Gillard from the Ridgetown Campus.”

Another very important and unique feature of the competition is that it is completely administered by a student co-ordinator. Roberts concedes that he can step in when needed, but for the most part, it is a program run for students, by students. -end-