South Dakota State team advances in global Hult Prize contest

SDSU Marketing & Communications
Posted 6/6/24

BROOKINGS — A business plan developed by four South Dakota State University students — to manufacture biodegradable, single-use plastic bags out of soybean hulls — has earned them a …

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South Dakota State team advances in global Hult Prize contest


BROOKINGS — A business plan developed by four South Dakota State University students — to manufacture biodegradable, single-use plastic bags out of soybean hulls — has earned them a chance to advance in an international contest with the next stop Nairobi, Kenya.

The SDSU students are among 360 teams that advanced out of 10,000 teams entered in the global Hult Prize competition, which is considered the Nobel Prize for college students, according to team member Hunter Eide of Gettysburg. Other members are Nicole Schilling, of St. Peter, Minnesota; Kylie Rosenau, of Blue Earth, Minnesota; and Samuel Hadacek, of Mount Solon, Virginia.

Ultimately, there is only one prize to be earned, and it’s a big one — $1 million. But the students and their advisers are already amazed at how far they’ve come in the prestigious competition that went well beyond their normal coursework.

“SDSU is in the top 3.6% in the world, and that’s really extraordinary,” said Rebecca Bott-Knutson, dean of the Van D. and Barbara B. Fishback Honors College. The competition draws more than 100,000 young people from more than 100 countries annually.

“It’s super exciting” to have advanced, Eide said. In the next round, the SDSU students will be among 40 teams submitting their business proposal at a summit in Nairobi June 7-9. That is among nine cities worldwide where students will compete.

Started with The Justice Challenge

The students took on the project while participating in The Justice Challenge, a national, year-long honors experience designed to empower participants with skills in addressing the world’s most wicked problems using systems thinking.

The initiative, funded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was led by the Fishback Honors College and SDSU with help from 13 additional partner universities. One hundred participants from more than 20 universities participated in the inaugural year, which focused on food justice.

The international Hult Prize contest was among other opportunities students could pursue to continue leveraging their new skills. Two teams formed from The Justice Challenge — one from SDSU and one from the University of Louisville.

The SDSU students, graduating seniors Eide and Schilling, and incoming junior Rosenau and incoming senior Hadacek, focused their Hult Prize work on their shared appreciation for agriculture.

Beyond the classroom

The SDSU students will be joined in Kenya by Srinivas Janaswamy, an associate professor in dairy and food science as well as agronomy, horticulture and plant science. He serves on the advisory board for the students’ proposed company, Agri- Cycle Innovations, and is the source for the product the students envision producing.

Agri-Cycle Innovations’ premier product is a biodegradable, non-toxic, single-use plastic, which is made from non-edible parts of soybean plants rather than petroleum, which takes years to break down. Janaswamy said, “We are creating a value addition by upcycling the bioresidues. I was impressed when the students contacted me to develop their project based on my research.”

Bott-Knutson said the students’ efforts went well beyond their Justice Challenge online coursework, which some took for credit and others as a cocurricular activity. The students kept meeting and digging into more complex issues.

“It’s very rare and very exciting to see a group of students go beyond like this. … That’s some of the real magic behind this group of students. They are so tenacious and so deeply motivated to understand the world around them and to figure out how to make a positive impact on some of our greatest challenges,” she said.

Business plan in place

Janaswamy is advancing the scientific research behind the business plan and has created a patent-pending process that extracts cellulose from the hulls and adds a solvent to give the cellulose film the same strength as petroleum-based bags.

While he continues to focus on research and development of the technology, the budding entrepreneurs are creating a successful business concept — one that would leverage the $1 million grand prize and venture capital.

Their first step would be marketing to local stores that take a sustainability focus and then expanding to regional outlets.

They project breaking even in the second year as its primary input, soybean hulls, is low cost and abundantly available, Schilling said.

Short presentation

At the Nairobi summit, students will have four minutes to make their presentation. Then there is a two-minute question-and-answer session and two minutes for feedback from judges. Eight teams will be chosen for an extended presentation in Nairobi with one winner chosen.

“In order to be successful, the team must make a compelling pitch for their idea in four minutes or less. This takes teamwork, planning and surgical-like precision in their use of every second,” Bott-Knutson said.

The winning team from each summit along with three other startups selected through the Second Chance Round will earn a spot at the Global Accelerator. Those 12 semifinalists will connect with Hult Prize mentors and curricula to refine their pitches and further develop their businesses. In August, they will travel to London to spend two weeks working and learning with world-class experts and coaches.

From that stage, six teams will be chosen to participate in the $1 million finals.

First SDSU team since 2011

This is the 15th year of the Hult competition and the first year for SDSU to compete since 2011, Eide said. The students formed their contest corporation, Agri-Cycle Innovations, in November. Their proposal was submitted in February, and they learned of their success in mid-April.

Eide noted that past Hult Prize winners have come from Ivy League schools, which can be intimidating, but “our success is a testament of what SDSU can do for its students.”

Part of that support is providing travel funds for the students through the SDSU Foundation, Fishback Honors College and the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences.

The students have been guided by a faculty advisory team including Barb Heller (entrepreneurship), Bott-Knutson and Janaswamy. Industry advisory members are Kyle Bender, Falcon Plastics, and Dawn Nagel, a Gettysburg farmer.

“We’re excited to make everybody proud in the next round,” Schilling said.