Mary Beth Wilson is standing in a field of amaranth at Maggie Robertson’s farm in Sligo, PA. The amaranth is going to supply Innovesca’s first pilot run using its processing technology that enables the body to access and absorb more of the plant’s nutrients. Why is this important? Because amaranth is a nutrient-dense crop that grows like a weed in many regions but remains underutilized. And if the nutrients from a crop that is plentiful and underutilized can be optimized, the potential for solving problems in countries battling malnutrition–from the United States to countries in Africa—is groundbreaking.
Of course—this being Pittsburgh–it all started with ketchup. As Wilson was completing her graduate studies in Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, a project manager from the Innovation Center at Heinz Corporation contacted her adviser, Philip LeDuc, with an interest in looking at the textural properties of ketchup. Dr. LeDuc knew she loved food and with her background in materials science, he thought she would be a good fit for the project.
The question Wilson needed to answer dealt with how texture impacts taste. In the process of Wilson’s research, she realized that manipulating the texture of food not only impacts taste but has potential to impact nutrition. This was her eureka moment that led to Innovesca’s revolutionary process that optimizes the nutrient availability of food.
The project led to winning the Bill & Melinda Gates Grand Challenges Exploration Award to improve infant and child nutrition. Wilson took this grant to take her project to the next level.
“I started researching underutilized plants in sub-Saharan Africa and discovered that amaranth grows as a weed.” For months, Wilson researched amaranth and her work led her to Pete Noll, a fellow Carnegie Mellon alum who directs Puente a la Salud Comunitaria, a nonprofit that supports amaranth farmers in Mexico and serves on the board of The Amaranth Institute, a nonprofit in Oaxaca focused on amaranth cultivation. Noll proved pivotal in facilitating valuable connections for Wilson.
A first year Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Grant from the National Science Foundation, a Carnegie Mellon Open Field Entrepreneurs Fund award and angel investment gave Innovesca the funds to continue research and led Wilson to Rwanda where she met with smallholder farmers cultivating amaranth. Wilson realized the potential for Innovesca not only to make products that improve nutrition but also the opportunity to source so that the company can help improve the livelihood of farmers and create jobs in developing regions.
The farmers’ enthusiasm to work with Innovesca further affirmed how Wilson would approach sourcing. “While visiting Rwanda and talking to groups of farmers, we saw how much they were looking for opportunities, how willing they were to work with us and knowing that we can have that kind of impact, it was very clear how we can create a revolutionary company both technologically and socially.”
This symbiosis of technological innovation and social impact is what defines Innovesca today. Wilson reflects on how a ketchup side project led her from what she thought was going to be a career in the academe. “I was on my way to aiming for a faculty track to cultivate the next generation of engineers. I didn’t see myself starting a company but I truly got invested in the idea and the potential to do something that would make an impact–taking research from a lab and turning it into something tangible that benefits society.”
After the initial pilot run in Pittsburgh this fall, Innovesca will work Pete Noll and Puente a la Salud Comunitaria’ s network of 200 farmers in Oaxaca for the first run of its product on a larger scale.
Wilson’s vision as Innovesca grows is to work with other underutilized crops in different countries and bring the company’s technology and social innovation to different regions of the world.