Student team wins Ag Business Springboard Competition

November 28, 2011

University Park, Pa. -- A team of five students from the College of Engineering and the College of Agricultural Sciences won the 2011 Ag Business Springboard Competition. The winning team was chosen on Nov. 14 out of five finalist groups and was awarded the $5,000 grand prize.

Members of Team Baobab PSU include team leader Matt Zellers, a senior in mechanical engineering; Leigh Lesnick, a senior in mechanical engineering; Alyssa Joslin, a junior in industrial engineering; Imran Hussain, a junior in immunology and infectious diseases; and Tyler Yost, a junior in environmental resource management.

The team's proposal was motivated by a project that Zellers, Lesnick and Joslin worked on for their Engineering Leadership Development Minor (ELDM). Research regarding the fruit baobab began in 2008 in the ELDM program and in spring of 2010, Zellers worked with a team of students that did preliminary design work to process the different parts of the fruit more efficiently than the current method, which uses a mortar and pestle. Zellers then posted the report to his website.

"In October of 2010 I received an email from a girl in Africa saying that she read my report and was wondering if Penn State would like to work with a women cooperative in Benin to develop a machine," Zellers explained.

Zellers, Lesnick and Joslin came together in spring 2011 as part of a design and fabrication team working to design a 21st century food processor for baobab. They then manufactured the machine which they took to the women cooperative in Benin, Africa. The three students traveled to Benin in May 2011.

The three students heard about the Ag Business Springboard Competition and thought that the Baobab processor had business potential. The competition is held annually by the College of Agricultural Sciences as part of its entrepreneurship initiative. Groups of two to five students develop and pitch an innovative business plan which addresses a need in the field of agricultural sciences. A panel of judges selects the top five business plans based on the market, product or service, customers, technology, development plan, distribution plan, team composition, competition, financial projections and exit strategy.

Zellers, Joslin and Lesnick recruited Hussain and Yost, who were able to provide insight into the agricultural side of the business and general business information. Zellers was designated as the team leader. The group addressed the agricultural problem that the cooperatives in Sub-Saharan Africa lack of an efficient way to process the Baobab fruit and there is an absence of venues for sales of the processed fruit.

The team proposed a business plan for a company that supplies baobab products including naturally dry baobab pulp and baobab seed oil. These products are in demand because baobab is high in vitamin C, calcium, protein and dietary fiber concentrations making it a sought after ingredient in healthy foods. Additionally, the seed oil can be used by the cosmetic industry in skin and hair care products because it contains omega fatty acids 3, 6 and 9 as well as vitamins A, D, E and F.

The Baobab supply company would produce baobab processing machines and give them to cooperatives with which they signed strict contracts designating that all baobab products produced with the company's machines were property of the company. The company would then collect the product from the cooperatives and transport them to a centralized processing facility where they would be refined, standardized and packaged for international export. The company would sell the products to international companies interested in marketing baobab products to food and beverage and health and beauty companies.

Team Baobab was chosen to present their projects, along with four other finalist teams, live to an audience including Penn State students, faculty, staff and members of the Pennsylvania business community and judges chose the top three projects for awards. Team Baobab will split the $5,000 grand prize. The teams True Vine Farms and BioSpin Fiber Technologies tied for second place and won $1,000 each.  

Team Baobab plans to continue to pursue their business plan. "Our goal moving forward it to gain business connections and advice to look at the feasibly to start our company on the ground in Sub-Saharan Africa," Zellers said.

  • Engineering students Matt Zellers, left, Steve DeSandis, Alyssa Joslin and Leigh Lesnick traveled to Benin, Africa, in May to get a first-hand look at how a village cooperative processes baobab fruit. The team designed a machine they hope will increase the cooperative's productivity.

    IMAGE: Curtis Chan

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated December 01, 2011