The Heart of WSU’s Entrepreneurial Spirit

WSU post-doc Derick Jiwan and team are turning byproducts from the Greek yogurt industry into a healthy drink—while realizing a higher purpose for their scientific research

By Kakali Chakrabarti and Ruth Williams

From left: Henry Baker, Andrew Jaboro, Jose Orenday-Ortiz, Alex Wu Hagen, Derick Jiwan

The Greek yogurt industry produces thousands of gallons of acid whey – the unused liquid drained from yogurt to make it creamy. The cost of handling and disposing of all the whey, although rich in nutrition, has been a major expense to the industry—so researchers have been looking for a way to convert the whey into a useable and profitable product. A group of WSU students and scientists may have found the answer.

Team Semplice, led by WSU postdoc Derick Jiwan, began as a food science project to study whether or not these yogurt byproducts could be recaptured to make a nutritious and sustainable drink. The proprietary information is protected by WSU and in the early stages of finding its way to the marketplace.

Team Semplice brought together a diverse team of postdoc, graduate, and undergraduate students studying marketing, food engineering, bioengineering, and communication.

“The benefit of having such a diverse team is that we have every expertise needed to take on an entrepreneurship endeavor—scientific knowledge as well as marketing and communication skills,” says Jiwan. In 2016, the team was part of the WSU NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps) three-year grant, and in April, 2017 won first place in the Carson College of Business’s Annual Business Plan competition, taking home $15,000. Team Semplice found further accolades as second place winners at the Idaho Pitch Competition, and was invited for a Lightning Pitch round at the 2017 CleanTech Innovation Showcase.

The spirit of innovation

Jiwan earned his Ph.D. from WSU in molecular plant sciences in 2011. While working on his dissertation, he participated in a number of service-based agricultural research projects and worked with several different teams to develop trade secrets and proprietary information. In 2012, Jiwan helped his faculty advisor, Amit Dhingra, form a biotech company they named Phytelligence, a now thriving agricultural biotechnology company that provides true-to-type plant rootstock to growers.

Through this experience, Jiwan caught the entrepreneurial spirit. In 2016 he teamed up with Charles Daiko, who was a food science graduate student working on the yogurt byproduct concept that eventually became Semplice. To know whether the product was palatable to consumers, Team Semplice conducted a consumer taste panel with several hundred people. With highly favorable responses, the team realized their product could have real potential.

Team Semplice has received significant support from the WSU Office of Research and Office of Commercialization in getting funding and other scholarship opportunities, and has received recommendations for taking the product to the next level. Semplice is the exclusive licensee of the proprietary material owned by WSU.

Semplice currently uses WSU’s Food Science Department’s USDA certified kitchen, and rents the Ferdinand’s Ice-cream Shoppe facility when they need more space. They have found great support and enthusiasm from other departments in the university as well, such as Carson College of Business, Voiland College of Engineering, and Murrow College of Communication, which have helped them with marketing and public relations, and provided them with opportunities to help take the product to next stage.

More than a start-up

Dhingra required Jiwan to work with undergraduate students while he was a graduate student, which gave him practical experience with supervision, administration, teamwork, and time management. “There is no course on time management, teamwork with students, interdisciplinary teamwork, or work-life balance, so this experience was really valuable,” says Jiwan.

As a result of that experience as a doctoral student, Jiwan hopes to use Semplice as a model to train undergraduates in developing leadership skills while giving them work experience in areas outside their core degree. “Such experiences make students more marketable,” he says.

As Jiwan looks back on his doctoral work, he values an adviser who pushed him to break the disciplinary boundaries and fulfil the larger purposes of scientific research. “Dhingra helped me realize that the purpose of scientific research is to help people,” says Jiwan. “If research is limited to labs or scientific publications, it might miss out on a significant impact in the world.”

Jiwan believes entrepreneurship requires leadership and a desire to contribute to the larger community. An idea may not be Nobel Prize-worthy, but may still have an impact on a smaller scale. Jiwan’s time at Phytelligence helped him understand that even a small, simple innovation can make a big impact. Also, when he served time on the Board of Directors for the Moscow Food Co-op, he realized how a small bylaw or new product can impact a community.

“My experiences taught me that ideas are great, but one also needs a great team, great support and great mentorship,” says Jiwan.  “Entrepreneurship is both a science and an art.”

In addition to his business venture, Jiwan works in the wheat quality lab for his post-doc in crop sciences, where he uses genomic data to help breeders and farmers reduce the time and energy they spend in the land by integrating quality trades. He has also developed a project in Colombia, trying to synthesize academia and industry so that they can support each other to solve problems like oil palm disease and cocoa disease. He is organizing a workshop in 2018 to bring more government support into this research and develop private-public partnership models.

“I think WSU is doing a great job encouraging students to not just research and publish, but to also commercialize,” says Jiwan.  “The emphasis on interdepartmental research and support for commercialization will create more WSU brand loyalty, and when these students become alumni, they will be motivated to give back.”