Penn State Ag students help launch national contest, in Washington, D.C.

Posted: October 18, 2013

Contest urges student solutions to feed the world
Penn State Ag students Keirstan Kure and Elliott Killian outside the World Bank in Washington, D.C., in early October, when they helped launch the world's largest student-focused competition

Penn State Ag students Keirstan Kure and Elliott Killian outside the World Bank in Washington, D.C., in early October, when they helped launch the world's largest student-focused competition

Two horticulture students are wracking their brains about ways they can use mushrooms in existing food-growing systems to help sustainably feed the world — and compete to win a $100,000 grand prize from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation to fund their efforts. 

Elliott Killian, a senior horticulture major who is studying the entrepreneurial mindset this semester, and two other students represented Penn State Oct. 2 at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., to help launch the world’s largest student-focused competition. 

The 2014 Agricultural Innovation Prize offers total prizes of $200,000 including $100,000 to the winning plan, to student teams with business and social entrepreneurship concepts to supply and distribute food to people throughout the globe in an environmentally sustainable way. 

The Howard G. Buffett Foundation is funding the prize, inspired by a forthcoming book “40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World” that chronicles Buffett’s views on how philanthropy, government and the private sector can best combat hunger and poverty across the globe. Buffett is the son of billionaire investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett. 

Before attending the Washington, D.C., event that launched the contest, Killian and a horticulture classmate were brainstorming various mushroom-related ideas. The contest is now an incentive to keep at it and they are working through 10 different concepts, thinking about which are most feasible to pursue. 

“It pushed our idea,” says Killian, of the competition. “Let’s make a business plan. Let’s make it detailed. Let’s look at it.” Even reaching the top 25 would be hugely valuable, says Killian, as was the trip to the capitol event where he met and networked with Howard G. Buffett, agriculture industry leaders and academics.

The experience has him thinking about a variety of possibilities, from business concepts to graduate school, says Killian, who is now reading Warren Buffett’s biography. 

The competition is a “welcome catalyst,” says Mark Gagnon, the college’s Harbaugh Entrepreneurship Scholar & Entrepreneurship Coordinator who teaches the entrepreneurial mindset course. 

“It elevates the call for entrepreneurship and innovation in agriculture. There are major challenges and opportunities that our students can address that have global implications for the benefit of humanity.” 

The event was scheduled to be held in the White House, but due to the partial government shutdown was moved to the World Bank. The University of Wisconsin-Madison will administer the competition through its Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

A December 2012 report to President Obama on agricultural preparedness for the century ahead and agriculture research led to creation of the contest. The report identified critical challenges to agricultural production in the 21st century: 

  • managing new pests, pathogens and invasive plants 
  • increasing efficiency of water use
  • reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture
  • growing food in a changing climate
  • managing the production of bioenergy
  • producing safe and nutritious food
  • global food security and maintaining abundant yields. 

The report recommended a renewed commitment to agriculture research and innovation to address the challenges. It detailed research strategies and recommended a $700 million annual increase in research funding. 

Keirstan Kure, a sophomore plant sciences major pursuing an agroecology option, who also represented Penn State at the launch event, has always been passionate about food and the environment and studying sustainable agriculture to bring those two together. 

Attending the event led her to realize the importance of her studies to people worldwide, says Kure. “What I am studying and what I am doing is extremely valuable and that motivates me even more,” says Kure. “That really solidified the career I’m pursuing.” 

Using the contest to spur innovation among students is a smart approach, says Kure. “Our fresh ides and our new innovations are going to be driving the solutions to the problems we’re facing right now,” she says. 

At the event, students brainstormed about how to promote the competition, talked about challenges facing agriculture and discussed ways that private industry could help students as they worked on their business concepts to compete in the contest, says Mike Hile, Ph.D. candidate in agricultural and biological engineering who attended. 

A highlight of the day, says Hile, was meeting Howard G. Buffett, a farmer, photographer and philanthropist who set out to help the estimated 1 billion people who lack basic food security. His book is a collection of 40 stories about Buffett’s life of farming and understanding of what’s required to produce food in difficult conditions, and his travels throughout the world to help people in need of food.

Student teams must submit a written business proposal of no more than two pages, a 200-word abstract of the business plan (to be made publicly available), and a PowerPoint presentation of up to 10 slides. 

Student entries are due February 28, 2014. For more information:, and After finalists are selected, teams will be invited to the UW-Madison campus in April 2014 for the final stage of the competition to present their projects and be scored by a high-profile judging panel. 

"This is the type of contest that spans across entire universities, not just for departments that have been historically identified as related to agriculture," says Molly Jahn, a professor of genetics who leads efforts at UW-Madison on the student-driven prize. 

Jahn says she is eager to see how a variety of fields, including mathematics, the social sciences and the health sciences, can contribute to thinking about food systems in innovative ways. Jahn served as a working group member on the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology report on Agricultural Preparedness and the United States Agricultural Research Enterprise.