Winners of Ag Sciences startup competition will help African science students

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A nonprofit venture to provide basic laboratory equipment to high school science students in West African countries won the $7,500 grand prize April 14 in the Ag Springboard student business pitch competition, sponsored by Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

Bridge the GapSci is the brainchild of five doctoral degree students, two of whom grew up in Ghana, who are aware of both the void of basic laboratory equipment for high school students in Africa – and the abundance of surplus and “gently used lab” equipment available in the United States.

The team plans to match sources of lab glassware, gloves, coats and pipettes with West African countries, starting with Ghana, to allow students to conduct experiments and learn science hands on. Sixty percent of labs in secondary schools in Africa don’t have working equipment and 40 percent don’t have labs.

“A little education and exposure can change your entire trajectory in life,” said team member Josephine Garban, a doctoral student in molecular medicine, during the team’s presentation in Tuesday’s final round of the Ag Springboard competition. Their goal is to help elevate society and opportunities in West Africa by providing tools for science and innovation.

“I can exhale now,” said team leader Kerry Belton, a doctoral student in molecular toxicology, after the announcement. Belton is looking forward to that first trip to Ghana when he can see high school students learning with the basic lab equipment that Bridge the GapSci plans to provide. “I smiled for five minutes straight.”

The other members of the team are Shawntawnee Collins, doctoral student in immunology/infectious diseases; Jamaal James, doctoral student in molecular medicine; and Sarah Owusu, doctoral student in physiology. 

saffron team

Members of the second-place team, Kronkos Farms, are (from left): Nate Hamaker (Class of 2016, chemical engineering and plant biology), Tina Shing Li Lai (master of science student, plant biology), Kristen Fisher (Class of 2015, environmental resource management) and JoAnna Hofstaedter (Class of 2016, secondary education biology) with Dean Richard Roush (left) and Earl Harbaugh, CEO of Ditch Witch Midwest. 

Image: Penn State

Ag Springboard is a signature event of the Entrepreneurship & Innovation Program at the College of Agricultural Sciences, made possible with the financial support of donors such as Earl and Kay Harbaugh.

Kronkos Farms, pitching a plan to use biotechnology to bring saffron production to the United States, won the $2,500 second place prize. The team’s concept is to use biotechnology to decrease labor, and increase yield and quality of saffron, paving the way for domestic production.

The team members are Joanna Hofstaedter, a junior secondary education biology major; Tina Shing Li Lai, an master's degree student in plant biology; Nate Hamaker, a junior double-major student in chemical engineering and plant biology; and Kristen Fisher, an environmental resource management major graduating in May.

Five student teams advanced to the final round, following a video submission of their pitch for a new product, service or nonprofit.

Nina Jenkins, CEO of ConidioTec and senior research associate in Entomology, told her story of developing a biopesticide for locusts that was effective and scientifically successful. However, it was not commercially successful and she is now using the lessons from that 12-year project to commercialize a biopesticide for bed bugs.

Jenkins also said scientists can absolutely make great entrepreneurs – despite what some people have advised – and scientists have heard.

Scientists who have the passion to start a business based on a discovery can be the best people to commercialize since they know the product or technology better than anyone else, according to Jenkins.

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Last Updated April 16, 2015