How To Start a Product Development Team in College

In my freshman orientation class, my professor talked to me about the Institute of Food Technologist Student Association (IFTSA)’s product development competition. As soon as I got on my computer, I started looking up what IFTSA had to offer and just read about the 3 product development competitions they had to offer.

A week later, I approached my professor about why Cal Poly was never in the product development competitions and she just told me to start one.

So I did, kind of.

I actually forgot how I did it, but I told everyone that if they had interest in joining a product development competition, they should meet me in the library. I had about 14 people interested on the balcony of the 2nd floor of the library.

What started out was a team of people who had no idea what they were doing to a university that challenged and defeated the top food science schools in the nation. I myself took home 3 trophies.

Let me tell you step by step on how to create a product development competition in your school. It’s easier than it sounds, but it’s a lot of work.

You don’t have to lead, but you can start the fire

I think I was only a month in college and people could see that I wasn’t ready to lead. I really did want to lead a team, but there were upperclassmen who said they would lead it. Thus, we split into 2 groups. One for Mars and one for Disney. I joined the Disney team and met some of my best friends and bitter rivals and that’s where the fun began.

Safe to say, both teams lost because we had absolutely no idea what we were doing. In fact, the product we entered for Disney was a freeze-dried fruit powder added into yogurt for color. We lost to a freeze dried powder drink mix. Our technical skill sucked because we lacked the experience and knowledge and it showed on our paper. We spend so much time on specifying what a serving of freeze dried fruit is, or how big the straws were going to be that in hind sight, it was pretty silly.

We tried again next year with me on Disney once again. Some people were inspired by us winning and the Mars team or juniors actually, placed into the competition. They got demolished on the poster and visual presentation, but that inspired a whole lot of people to do competitions.

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Next year, my friends and I were juniors and we entered Disney and Developing Solutions for Developing Countries and won an award in both. In my senior year, I entered (the now dead) Heart Healthy Competition with a brand new set of students and we won an award as well. We got a formula down, we had the knowledge basis, and most importantly, we knew how to use our resources carefully.

Though I don’t want to give you all of the secrets, here’s the biggest one: pictures are better than paragraphs and ask for help.

If you have no idea what marketing is in the rules, ask a marketing professor for help. If you have no idea how to manufacture granola bars, ask a granola bar technician for a process flow. The most transferable skill in any job ever is the ability to ask you resources for answers.

Never give up

Losing sucks. Lots of drama happens in these competitions. People back stab, or whine about credit. You have to choose who can go and who can’t. Someone fainted from over working themselves. People start to talk crap about you because you’re a power hungry megalomaniac.

You are going to spend endless nights editing your paper, or making your product, or begging your professor to read the paper you poorly wrote. You are going to spend weeks on a 10 minute meeting to have the president of your university fund your trip to Chicago. You’re going to find unconventional ways to look at old papers, and get on calls where you talk to people 10 years older than you and they talk about ingredients you’ve never even thought of. Like, what? You can add malic acid into stuff? Is that even legal?

But winning washes away all of that. Getting a plaque saying you’re pretty cool, getting invited to banquets cause you made a different in your university is cool too. Winning like, $500 bucks in nice as well.

Doing these competitions is hard. Starting them is extremely difficult. It gets easier every year, but dang were those years the most extravagant.

Teach the next generation

I am fortunate that every year, there is 1% of the student population that cares about what you’re doing. I am fortunate that these students were eagar to learn and were so much smarter than I was.

I lost a bunch of competitions, and technically never won the top prize for any of them, I lost running for a chair for IFTSA, I failed to implement our school trying to win the Most Improved Section.

However, just throwing myself out there was good enough to inspire people to do the same. A year after I left college, someone at Cal Poly won the grand prize for the Disney Competition. Every other year, someone in Cal Poly wins a VP of something in IFTSA, or gets to be regional chair. Last year, we won most improved section and one of our students won the best undergraduate award.

Whether or not you’re praised or forgotten for being the pioneer in this whole challenge, you still can take these skills and transfer them to other means. Just starting something and tackling as many IFTSA things as I could was a great experience that I’ve used again and again and again. Heck, you can say this podcast is one of those things.

Imparting a legacy that will help the students after you win again and again, and achieve more and more is the best thing you can offer. Whether or not you’ll be remembered doing this doesn’t matter. Just start something.

But that’s the boring stuff. Here’s what you really want.

So here are my step by step rules

  1. Let everyone in your team. People will lose interest due to time commitments and other dumb stuff. The work effort involved is survival of the fittest.
  2. Find a professor who really loves what you’re doing. A champion. Don’t constantly annoy them, but have them care enough where they will absolutely make time to read it once or twice or ten times.
  3. Divide the tasks by sections. There should be a few categories for each competition. For example, Product Description, Nutrition Analysis, HACCP stuff, cost and economics, etc. Everyone should have an interest in each. Divide by interest, do not force them into a role.
  4. Clarify that you know what Marketing is. You do not learn marketing in food science.
  5. Do a Competitive Analysis
  6. Your prototype should have 1 to 3 unique things in it. Clean Label, Allergen Free, unique packaging, glow in the dark, awesome weird shape, etc. Too many unique things make the product impossible to describe and work with.
  7. Your prototype should be made in the lab but it does not have to be perfect. It has to be perfect when you present to the judges.
  8. Shelf-stable products that can be made before you board a plane to Chicago is ideal. I didn’t have fun making green hummus in my hotel bathroom.
  9. Base your prototype off a standard like Hummus or Saltine Crackers and base your shelf-life on there at least for your prototypes.
  10. Pictures and graphs > paragraphs
  11. Use common sense when writing your paper
  12. Show the paper to your non-food science friend and have them read over it. If they like it, it’s a good product.
  13. But also remember that your judges are all super technical people so you have to also sound technically smart.
  14. Beg for money. Having your trip all-expense paid will load off a lot of stress. Your University should give you enough money.
  15. Outsource things to other departments including: logos, packaging, poster stuff, graphic animations, etc
  16. USDA nutrition database is your friend most of the time
  17. Your presentation should have animations but not be flashy
  18. Have a lot of drama. Drama makes you stronger. Drama makes your team stronger.
  19. Do something different from your competitors. In Disney, we put monster hats on and made a story out of our presentation. Our competitors were really boring. Unfortunately, everyone and their mother dressed up in fancy costumes from there on out.
  20. I don’t know anything because if I entered a competition today, I would get smoked because the products and presentations going on right now are GETTING BETTER AND BETTER.

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