By Chris Stipes
Moving out of their comfort zone as accomplished researchers to become novice entrepreneurs, a team from the UH Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management just won $50,000 to learn how to start a business. Now they’re working to bring innovative smartphone/tablet based food safety training tools to full commercialization.
“It puts the University of Houston on the map and that’s where we need to be,” said assistant professor Sujata Sirsat, the principal investigator on the project. “It’s very rewarding and in some cases it can be life changing because your student or you can start a small business. So many different opportunities open up.”
The UH team is one of just four nationwide to win the Innovations in Food and Agricultural Science and Technology (I-FAST) $200,000 prize competition. It’s a first-of-its-kind collaboration between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the National Science Foundation connecting academia and industry to bring agricultural innovations into the marketplace.
"Innovation is an economic driver and a necessity in the agriculture industry," said NIFA Director Sonny Ramaswamy. "Through this new partnership with the National Science Foundation, we are able to help move ideas from the research lab to the marketplace, where they can provide real solutions as these teams intended."
Sirsat, along with PhD student Heyao “Chandler” Yu and Hilton College professor John Bowen, developed a behavior-based, affordable educational toolkit system to educate, monitor and improve safe food handling practices for restaurant and grocery store employees.
“The goal is to enhance food safety behavior by designing behavior-based training tools for managers to motivate their employees to follow best practices,” said Sirsat.
The augmented reality technology streamlines food cleanliness practices to smaller and midsize food service operations where access to such tools might be limited.
“For example, you just place your smartphone on the food safety chart on the wall in the kitchen and it would be linked to a 30-second video on hand washing or how to clean the deli-slicer, which can be challenging,” said Sirsat. It’s instant access to the best way a food safety task should be carried out and can be tailored to certain business locations and specific tasks.
Safe food handling is not even close to where it needs to be, according to Sirsat, who says 60 percent of all foodborne illness in the United States happen in restaurants, most commonly from employees who came to work sick. But will the industry be interested enough to demand commercialization? That’s what the team has been investigating for months, interviewing 100 potential customers on the front lines of food service.
“It’s still a work in progress. We identify during customer discovery what changes need to be made and then we can pivot to a different or modified idea based on the feedback we’re getting. The project is still evolving,” said Sirsat.
The UH team along with the other winners, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Lincoln University and Cornell University, will present their findings in Washington D.C. in early December. The teams will then decide whether their businesses will move forward.
Team members took part in the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps), a six-month entrepreneurial immersion course to help them commercialize their discoveries. The teams are also eligible to apply for additional funding through the USDA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program, administered by NIFA.
“The great thing about the program is they celebrate the process no matter how far a product goes. It’s the process that’s the most interesting,” said Sirsat.