THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
PROJECT SOY HELPS GROW MARKETS FOR SOYBEANS IN CANADA
Den Gardner, Contributing Editor
I woke up this morning (thank goodness!), got in the shower and washed my hair with a shampoo made from soybeans. After I got dressed, I went downstairs and had a heart-healthy bagel made from soybeans. Meanwhile, my significant other tended to her appear_nce for the day, putting some lip balm made from 100 percent soybean oil on her chapped lips.
Soon, she sat down next to me at the breakfast table and munched on some mini soy nut butter cookies that resembled peanut butter cookies. As I munched some tofu-based "Crac-O-Soy" crackers, my son dabbled with a class art assignment, using finger paints and modeling dough made from soybeans.
Whack! That was the sound of my lovely wife giving me a gentle slap on the face, awakening me from whatís turned out to be my peaceful sleep and a dream of what might be someday in the future.
The University of Guelph in Ontario and First Line Seeds, a Guelph-based soybean seed company managed by President Peter Hannam, have been involved since 1996 in a contest for college students to develop new uses and markets for soybeans. All the products mentioned in the first two paragraphs of this article were entered by students in whatís called Project SOY (Soybean Opportunities for Youth).
OK, so maybe not all the products. The shampoo mentioned above actually was for horses. But then, this past summer, by accident, I washed my hair with dog shampoo. I seemed to have survived that fiasco without losing any more hair than a 49-year-old person normally does on a daily basis anyway.
FROM THE BEGINNING
"First Line came up with the idea as a way to promote soybean use in Ontario," says Owen Roberts, director of research communication for the University of Guelph. "Peter came to us (heís an alumnus of the university) and asked if we wanted to get involved. We had created a student-writing program about 10 years ago, and he thought there was a way to tie into that program in the delivery of Project SOY. First Line sponsors this program as well."
What this initial discussion led to was the creation of Project SOY and the use of a paid student project coordinator for its implementation. Each year a student is hired on a part-time basis to manage the program. "The student is in charge of promoting the program by talking to classes and encouraging them to enter the contest," Roberts says. "The student speaks to engineering, plant agriculture and food science classes, as well as art classes. The students appreciate another student leading the program."
Other efforts to promote this public sector-private sector partnership include writing news releases and articles for campus media about the contest. The student also is in charge of the Web site - www.uoguelph.ca/research/projectsoy. Take a peek. Itís well done.
"Weíre always looking for ways to promote uses for soybeans," says Hannam, who started First Line Seeds with a dozen Ontario soybean growers back in 1982. Today Hannam and his partners are minority owners in the company, while the majority shareholder is Monsanto Canada. "We have to move beyond traditional uses for soybeans, and what better way to help grow markets than promoting a contest dealing with alternative uses," he adds. Almost all soybeans grown in Canada are in Ontario.
Why did he start Project SOY? "I enjoy the exuberance and inventiveness of young people," Hannam says. "It gives them an opportunity to use their creative thinking."
More importantly, Hannam says, having a contest promoted through the university expands young peopleís awareness of soybeans, and thatís good for promoting uses of soybeans to a broader consumer audience. "We can spread the word about soybeans and their use beyond science and agricultural students," Hannam explains. "Students from the art department entered the finger paints, for example."
The winners are announced each year in April. From its infancy in 1996-1997, the number of projects has doubled. Cash prizes of $2,500, $1,000 and $500 are given for first, second and third place, respectively, in the contest each year. There are two categories for entries - the Undergraduate/Graduate Category for University of Guelph students and the Diploma Category for affiliated colleges.
Joining First Line Seeds and the University of Guelph in supporting the program are the Ontario Soybean Growersí Marketing Board and Maple Leaf Foods International.
A new twist to the program this year takes Project SOY to the next level. Whatís really exciting, from a marketing standpoint, is that students have been given the chance to work with the universityís patenting, licensing and commercialization experts in the Business Development Office to "ensure intellectual property with market potential is protected and that the students receive assistance in getting their products on store shelves," Roberts says.
An example is a previous winner. A couple of years ago a student created a coffee drink called Expressoy. Although that particular effort didnít go forward, a hybrid of that idea - creation of a soy-based tea - was developed by the same student. "She has been able to get a small grant to go forward and see if she can commercialize the product," Roberts explains. "This is one significant way the University of Guelph can help students market their ideas."
Another example is one of the 2000 winners - Whole Hearted Bagels, filled with soy protein. "The winners are working with a business development manager to find a market for the bagels or see what can be done with the recipe," Roberts says. "Maybe itís a partnership with the students and a company. We havenít reached any conclusions on this yet."
Hannam calls Project SOY the "gravy on top" of the companyís other marketing efforts to promote soybeans. "The Ontario soybean growers help us promote the program by announcing it in their newsletters and other ways," he says. "Soybeans are the No. 1 cash crop in Ontario. But itís only in the last 10 to 20 years that use has expanded throughout the province. Our company is the leader in short-season varieties and maturities. Promotions like these help our image and the image of soybeans."
The phrase Hannam likes to use when describing this marketing program is "classical PR." Roberts echoes that theme. "We use pretty traditional means to promote quite a nontraditional, innovative program," he says. "Other media certainly have influence, but print media still is the way to go up here."
Roberts adds that promotions such as Project SOY are necessary to spread the word about soybeans and alternative uses for the crop. "About 75 percent of the research here at the university is in the agri-food industry, yet only 20 percent of the student base is agriculture. Any opportunity we have to bring ag and non-ag sectors together enhances both sides understanding."
Hannam, whose altruistic motives are combined with PR possibilities to create a win-win for the university he loves and the company he runs, likes the high profile Project SOY brings to soybeans and his company. "Youíve got to have development and research in soybeans," Hannam says. "After that come the promotional opportunities. And to think this is an extracurricular activity for these students. They have fun with it. My hatís off to the students. They are the ones who make this all work for our industry." AM
Den Gardner owns Gardner & Gardner Communications, New Prague, Minn.