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North Carolina A&T Takes Top Prize at AAAS Innovation Showcase

The winning teams of the 2022 AAAS HBCU Making and Innovation Showcase
Teams from North Carolina A&T State University, Philander Smith College and Jackson State University earned the top three spots at the 2022 AAAS HBCU Making and Innovation Showcase. | Michael Colella

Amid a field of innovations ranging from water quality monitors to an app intended to help young people gain coding skills, an edible probiotic delivery technology took top honors at an AAAS-hosted showcase of innovations developed by students from historically Black colleges and universities.

The winning team – from North Carolina A&T State University – was one of 10 vying for the top prize at the AAAS HBCU Making and Innovation Showcase, held Sept. 22-24 in Washington, D.C.

“We are honored to provide this opportunity to HBCU students and faculty, supporting them in participating and leading innovation efforts that impact their local communities and institutions to improve the quality of life for all,” said Iris R. Wagstaff, program director at AAAS and principal investigator for the AAAS HBCU Making and Innovation Showcase.

The showcase is one part of an National Science Foundation grant awarded by the HBCU-UP program focused on advancing innovation capacity at HBCUs via a community of practice. The project, an initiative of AAAS’ Inclusive STEMM Ecosystems for Equity & Diversity (ISEED), first launched in 2018 and is AAAS’ only HBCU-focused initiative. It was inspired in part by the Obama White House’s 2015 National Week of Making celebrating the maker movement, in which innovators harness technology and creativity to turn their ideas into reality. The teams, made up of HBCU students in consultation with a faculty advisor, develop an innovation or prototype in response to one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which range from Affordable and Clean Energy to Zero Hunger to Quality Education.

In the showcase’s first four years, 241 students and 83 faculty members from 32 HBCUs took part. This year, 10 teams from eight HBCUs in six states took part in the fifth showcase.

The winning team, made up of graduate students Rycal Blount, Abdulhakim Sharaf Eddin and Phillip Yeboah, undergraduate student Alaina Brock, and faculty adviser Salam Ibrahim, earned the $2,000 top prize for their “Progel” product idea. Inspired by the fact that many food companies have removed hydrogenated oils and reduced saturated fats from their products for health reasons, the North Carolina A&T team pitched a healthier fat substitute that would be created through a process called oleogelation, which converts liquid oil into a gel. An oleogel also serves as an ideal delivery system for probiotics, which offer benefits related to heart health, digestion and immunity, the team noted.

“This is important because people desire foods that are both healthy and taste good,” said team member Rycal Blount. “Probiotics are a growing industry and there is a need for improved delivery systems.”

The $1,000 second-place prize went to a team from Philander Smith College for their EcoHome platform for tracking and managing household use of water, waste and energy. Third place and $500 went to Jackson State University for their project “VeggieSource – A Step to Combat Food Security in the State of Mississippi.”

In addition to teams’ pitches, HBCU Making and Innovation Showcase also included a full agenda of professional development sessions for HBCU students and faculty members focusing on career opportunities, university resources and more. Among the sessions was a fireside moderated by AAAS' Shirley Malcom and featuring Derrick Brent, deputy under secretary of commerce of intellectual property and deputy director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office – a longtime partner of the initiative.

“I learned a great understanding and appreciation for teamwork, doing your absolute best and having peace with your efforts no matter what the outcome is,” said Blount on the experience of participating in the showcase. “I also was able to network with other participants and industry personnel that I hope to work with professionally in the future. I am thankful for the experience.”

Coaching, professional development and mentoring sessions continue beyond the boundaries of the Showcase, too. Since the program’s launch, ISEED has presented more than 80 virtual and in-person sessions for students and faculty with the goal of advancing innovation capacity at HBCUs – a complement to other ISEED programs such as the Emerging Researchers National Conference in STEM and the AAAS S-STEM Initiative. The initiative will also produce an HBCU innovation toolkit.

“HBCUs are uniquely positioned to develop critical innovation and entrepreneurial mindset to address issues in public health, social justice, education and the environment,” said Neela White, ISEED project director at AAAS. “This showcase builds a community of practice that identifies the next generation of STEM professionals who will lead solutions to these grand global challenges.”