Nelson Institute student awarded $25,000 in national agricultural innovation competition

April 28, 2014

Mighty Mealworm, a team from UW-Madison that includes Nelson Institute graduate student Valerie Stull, was among the six top teams in the national Agricultural Innovation Prize: Powered by 40 Chances and will receive $25,000.

The competition announced winning student teams during a two-day event held at UW-Madison on April 25-26, where students, competition judges, experts from a range of backgrounds and the public explored finalists' projects and larger ideas in business, science and society.

Mighty Mealworm — led by Stull, a doctoral student in Environment and Resources, and Rachel Bergmans, an epidemiology doctoral student in the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health — is a startup focused on producing edible mealworm protein powder to improve food security in parts of sub-Saharan Africa most affected by drought and climate change.

The team chose mealworms because of the insects' appetite for a variety of foods, ability to survive on little water and their role in recycling nutrients and waste into high quality protein — about 40 percent protein by weight (for reference, chicken is around 30 to 35 percent).

With the prize, the team will focus on micro-financing women's cooperatives in Africa and introducing the concept to areas where insect consumption is already culturally acceptable.

"Eating mealworms is strange and foreign to us in Western cultures, but in fact, it's not taboo in other places; it's a staple in some diets," says Stull. "A project like this can really empower people financially and give them options and a food source year-round while recycling waste."

Sponsored by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation in cooperation with the United States Department of Agriculture and in partnership with the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID), the Agricultural Innovation Prize awarded $240,000 in prizes to undergraduate and graduate students across the country to advance their proposals to improve global food systems.

"This project is about inspiring the next generation of food system innovators to believe that they can create the future they dream of and the future we need," says Molly Jahn, professor of genetics at UW-Madison, Discovery Fellow with WID and a faculty affiliate of the Nelson Institute, who led efforts organizing the Ag Prize.

The Mighty Mealworm team was also recently awarded first place in the Global Stewards Sustainability Prize, part of the Wisconsin Energy and Sustainability Challenge student competition aimed at advancing creative ideas in energy and environmental sustainability. 

Photo credit Wisconsin Institute for Discovery.