AMES, IOWA — Products such as cinnamon roll ice cream, saffron-poached pears and cheesy broccoli rice balls sound as if they would be developed by companies such as Wells Blue Bunny or Hy-Vee.
Yet thanks to a senior capstone course called food product development, a.k.a. Dyscovry Foods Inc., upperclassmen at Iowa State University are developing professional products even before they receive their degrees.
"I’m always amazed at the students’ creativity," said Ken Prusa, professor of food science and human nutrition. "We challenge them to do something that’s not out there, and they do it every year."
The class is designed to simulate a corporation with "shares" of stock and professors who function like corporate managers — Mr. Prusa is in charge of product development, Deland Myers heads up processing, Lester Wilson maintains quality control and Mark Love oversees regulatory affairs.
As far as product concepts, it’s up to the students’ imaginations, taste buds and market sense — Mr. Prusa said the sky is the limit for potential ideas.
While some other universities might have similar programs, Mr. Prusa said the most unique aspect of the class is the board of industry professionals who act as an advising body for the students. The board is made up of representatives from companies such as Wells Blue Bunny, Marzetti Frozen Pasta, Hy-Vee Foods, Tone’s and Grain Processing Corp.
The class usually consists of two board meetings, one at the beginning of the semester and one at the end. The first meeting focuses on product concept, marketability and product positioning. Sometimes students present two ideas at this point and let the board help them decide which product develop.
At the final meeting, groups of students present their product in its final stage for evaluation and future recommendations. This may consist of comments on market positioning, costing, quality tips during storage and industrial ingredient functionality.
There also is an industry consultant — Randy Jones with Jones Development Group in Ames — who teaches team building skills.
There were 23 students in the course this past semester and students are divided into teams of three. Students may choose to emphasize in one of three areas: consumer food science, industry/quality control or technology. The semester is divided into three sections: formulation, process and development and commercialization.
The students work for about 8 to 10 hours a week developing their products.
"We help students take a realistic look at the marketplace to make sure their product isn’t a ‘me too’ product, but something unique that fits an unfilled need in the market," said Robin Kline, a food and nutrition consultant with Savvy Food Communications in Des Moines. Ms. Kline also has been a board chairperson in the past.
Students are encouraged to follow current industry trends with this semester’s class even developing an ethnic option — an Indian-spiced, breaded, chicken appetizer with cucumber-yogurt sauce.
As far as products actually getting developed and produced, Hy-Vee currently is interested in developing an idea from a past class called Short-cut shortcake. Another recipe from the class was even sold to a health food store.
There also has been an instance of a product similar to what the students developed in the class later landing on the market, and students could take pride in the fact that they also had the same great idea possibly even before the experts developed it.
Mr. Prusa said the students own their products and they have the freedom to carry them into the store in the manner they so choose.
"They learn thinking on their feet, answering questions and challenges from management, dealing with disappointment and re-grouping when a project doesn’t work," Ms. Kline said. "Students who get this challenge and experience are better equipped to face real business problems. Bottom line, this class gives students an edge."