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UW-Madison’s Product Development Team Beats the Odds

The University of Wisconsin-Madison Product Development Team is in the midst of an odd streak–an odd winning streak, that is.

In 2001, 2003 and 2005, the team, part of the university’s Food Science Club, took first place at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual Product Development Competition by creating exceptionally tasty, nutritious and feasible new food items with the potential to fly off grocery store shelves.

In 2001, the team developed Handicotti, a hand-held snack featuring cheese, pasta sauce and vegetables enclosed by a large pasta shell. In 2003, they made Fruit Yo’s, a fruit roll-up snack containing yogurt. Most recently, the 2005 team designed Healthy sTarts, a breakfast item featuring a yogurt-filled granola cup, topped with blueberries and strawberries.

While the team’s recipes are top secret before the competition, another interesting topic is always open for discussion: the secret to the team’s success. Although everyone involved proposes a slightly different reason, the success of the Product Development Team ultimately boils down to the students-their ingenuity, hard work and dedication.

According to team members, the road to winning is long, but rewarding. The student-run team shepherds a product through all stages of development. “It takes a lot of time,” admits Rachel Prososki, captain of the 2005 team and current food science graduate student in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
After choosing the best product concept, tasks are divided among team members.

“In addition to making the product, team members work on product description, marketing, cost analysis, sensory analysis, packaging, nutrition labeling, manufacturing process for up-scale production and safety standards,” says Prososki.

Of all the proposals received by the IFT, only six are selected to compete in the final competition. Finalists put together an informational poster, PowerPoint presentation, skit and an even more elaborate product proposal, reaching 20 pages in length.

The UW-Madison Product Development Team is composed of a diverse set of individuals, a combination that works to strengthen the team. There are undergraduates, graduate students, food chemists, food engineers and bacteriologists. Some are research-oriented, while others focus on business.
Additionally, members hail from all corners of the globe. “The cultural diversity actually brings a lot more ideas to the group,” says Chinthu Udayarajan, a food science graduate student from India.

Bill Wendorff, professor and chair of the food science department, is extremely proud of the team. He offers his own pet theory about why, so far, the team only wins in odd years.

“My theory is the only time we really score is when we include a dairy ingredient. Handicotti had cheese, Fruit-Yo’s and Healthy sTarts both had yogurt. When we tried freeze-dried vegetables and rice, we didn’t do it.”

Perhaps a dairy ingredient is the dairy state’s own good luck charm. Yet even Wendorff admits there may be more to winning than simply adding dairy. “To make it to the finals, it usually takes a team that has faced some challenge and been able to overcome it,” he says.

For Healthy starts, the team designed an edible, protective layer for the inside of the granola crust. The layer prevented water in the yogurt from soaking into the granola during microwaving. “They faced a production problem and were able to resolve it. That is what put them up and over the top with the judges,” says Wendorff.

The team also deserves kudos for being independent. According to Rich Hartel, a UW-Madison food science professor, many teams involved in the competition have faculty advisors, while the UW-Madison team is completely student-run.

Along similar lines, the UW-Madison team faces another seeming disadvantage at the competition. UW-Madison does not specifically teach product development, while other universities use product development as their capstone courses.

Hartel believes the success of the UW-Madison Product Development Team comes down to the quality of the students.

“We have really good students. They take it seriously and spend the time at it,” he says. “I”ve already been asked about some of this year’s team members by companies who are interested in hiring them.”

Team membership is a great resume booster, and may even serve as the valuable “foot in the door” often needed to secure an entry-level food industry job.

“It seems like employers, if they know about the competitions, think very highly of participation in the Product Development Team,” says Debby Levenson, who received a master”s degree in Food Science from UW-Madison in 2003. She spent three years on the team and now works for Cadbury.

As for what to expect from the 2006 Product Development Team, as always, it is top secret. One thing is confirmed, however; there are a record number of team members. Here”s wishing them luck in this even-numbered year!

“We’ve built a tradition, but we haven’t built a dynasty,” says Wendorff, with a smile. “When we win in even years, then we can talk about a dynasty.”