Friday, September 29, 2023

Montana State Teams Place First and Second at Agriculture-Technology Summit

by Colter Brown

BOZEMAN – Two Montana State University teams found success at the Montana AgTech Innovation and Investment Summit in Great Falls last month, where representatives across the fields of business, entrepreneurship, agriculture and technology networked and presented ideas to expand their reach. The inaugural event was organized by the Montana Agricultural Business Association and the Montana Department of Agriculture in collaboration with the MSU College of Agriculture.

The event included speakers, networking sessions and opportunities for invited teams to present their products and ideas to members of the agricultural and technological communities from across the region.

Capping off the daylong event was the Montana Agricultural Speed-Pitch Competition, which is designed to recognize and help fund innovative ideas in agriculture. Each selected project was described in a one-minute presentation, and winners were judged and voted on by the summit’s attendees. The top three projects were awarded funding of $25,000, $15,000 and $10,000, respectively.

The winning team came from the Department of Plant Science and Plant Pathology in MSU’s College of Agriculture. Doctoral student Brandon Tillett and professor and department head Mike Giroux presented research out of the MSU durum wheat breeding lab led by Giroux and research associate Andy Hogg centered on identifying genetic traits in durum wheat to make firmer pasta that resists overcooking. The project was titled “Al Dente Forever.”

“We work on improving and releasing durum varieties so that Montana farmers can select the line best suited for their conditions with excellent product quality,” said Tillett of the durum lab. “That could be anything from trying to improve yield to working on a specific metric that contributes to qualities that farmers want or dealing with issues like sawfly resistance.” 

The first-prize research centered on boosting the durum’s amylose content. Amylose is a type of starch that contributes to increased fiber content in a final product. Wheat with higher amylose content absorbs less water during cooking, resulting in pasta that can maintain an al dente texture after up to 10 minutes of extra cooking – long past the point where traditional dried pastas become mushy.

Through traditional breeding methods – the novel durum breeds are non-GMOs, or not genetically modified organisms – the team was able to develop a high-quality durum variety with increased amylose content.

Durum with high amylose content can’t be used for bread because it inhibits dough rising and bread loaf volume, Tillett said. But because pasta doesn’t require leavening, it’s an ideal avenue for implementing research like this.

Northern Ag Network spoke with Brandon immediately after winning the speed pitch competition. Watch a clip from that interview below.

Translating that science effectively for an audience not made up of professional plant geneticists was a challenge, but the team used MSU’s Blackstone LaunchPad as a resource. The LaunchPad provides resources and services to students with entrepreneurial ambitions and ideas for businesses of their own.

“Making a pitch in one minute is quite hard to pull off,” Tillett said. “Trevor Huffmaster and Brian Arthur of the Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship were very effective in giving us some coaching about what to target in that one-minute explanation and how we wanted to create our front-facing poster for the public, not necessarily for other geneticists who may already understand what we’re doing.”

The prize money for their win will support further work to develop improved pasta, said Hogg. With a unique breed of durum identified and bred, there’s already an opportunity for partnership with interested companies to test and refine products that could ultimately end up on supermarket shelves.

“Besides just doing breeding for yield in normal lines, we also study genes that affect quality traits. A lot of the time, those can be novel things,” said Hogg. “We spend a lot of effort creating these unique lines, but they don’t always go into production.” 

Coming in second place at the summit was a team from Aizy Tech, a robotics company founded by MSU mechanical engineering student Morteza Hosseinnejad. Business management student Emily Adams serves as the company’s business development manager, senior financial engineering student Landon Sielaff is the business sales manager, and Yoni Shchemelinin, who received his master’s in mechanical engineering in December from MSU, is the company’s engineer.

The team presented its first product at the summit: a drone called the Whitehawk, designed for precision agriculture, which is slated for production this summer.

“We’re really trying to provide services around crop analytics, cattle management and fertilizers, working with farmers, ranchers and agronomists to help Montana producers better manage their farms and ranches,” said Sielaff, who helped design the company’s business plan and its one-minute pitch for the competition. “The biggest thing for us was just talking to potential customers. Who is someone who would use this? What are issues and pain points that they’re experiencing currently? How can we better work with them to create a product and a solution that meets their needs?”

The Blackstone LaunchPad also played an integral part in Aizy Tech’s project by first connecting Sielaff with the company’s founder, Hosseinnejad. The introduction to Aizy Tech felt like kismet for Sielaff, who grew up seeing how aviation is applied in precision agriculture. His uncle was a helicopter pilot who worked in the commercial agriculture industry, and Sielaff said he was mesmerized after flying with him.

“It’s how I got interested in flying and grew to love agriculture,” he said. “When I got introduced to Morteza, I knew this was an opportunity I had to take advantage of.”

Sielaff said the $15,000 prize for the team’s second-place finish will be applied to the first phases of the Whitehawk’s production. He hopes it will be the first step of a successful launch.

For a company that spans scientific realms, Sielaff noted, the AgTech Innovation Summit was crucial in helping create connections. It provided the team an opportunity to present its idea to more potential users, as well as a forum for teaching others about the business and learning from active agriculturalists and entrepreneurs about the voids that need to be filled in the field of precision agriculture. Some of the connections initiated at the event fostered relationships with departments back home at MSU.

“At the conference, we connected with professors in the College of Agriculture who I’d never met,” said Sielaff. “The precision agriculture projects here are huge, and that’s one resource that we’re excited to use.” Taking third place in the pitch competition was 406 Agronomy, a Havre-based precision agriculture company that provides services surrounding crop planning, agricultural data management, satellite imagery and soil science optimization. More information about the summit can be found at


MSU News Service

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