Why Purdue University Students Invented Corn-Based Liquid Bandages and Soy Crayons

Drive through the Midwest and it's only a matter of time before you hit corn and soy fields that stretch as far as the eye can see. It's no surprise, really--the U.S. government lavishes the two industries with cash, spending $15.4 billion in subsidies for corn, cotton, rice, wheat, and soybeans in 2009 alone. But corn and soy aren't all bad. In addition to uses in animal feed and high-fructose corn syrup, the two crops can be used to replace oil-based plastics, toxic acrylics, and as biodiesel feedstock, among other things.

Indiana-based Purdue University is taking advantage of its spot in prime corn and soybean territory to promote student innovation--and to get the next generation of inventors and businesspeople thinking about sustainability. The university's annual Student Soybean and Corn Innovations competition, funded by the Indiana Soybean Alliance and the Indiana Corn Marketing Council, asks teams of students to create, package, and come up with business and marketing plans for "new uses" of corn and soybeans. This year's winners were announced on Wednesday.

The $20,000 first place soy prize went to Dentural, an all-natural adhesive for dentures, while the $20,000 first place corn prize went to Natural Bandage, a liquid bandage made out of corn. The bandage can bind to skin, resist bacteria and water, and still remain flexible. It's cheap, too--current liquid bandages cost from 20 to 50 cents per bandage, while this bandage could be priced as low as 5 cents per application. "It's designed to be an over-the-counter product, something that any consumer could use safely and easily," says team member Robert Agee.

Past winners of the competition, now in its 17th year for the soy-based portion and the third year for corn, include soy crayons, soy gelatin, and soy ski wax.

Jocelyn Wong, one of the team members behind the soy crayons, says her experience was a formative one for her later career. "At the time [1994], there was a lot of negative press on lead being found in crayons in China," she says. "We got lucky in the lab. One of our first trials worked. We called it 'Earth Crayons' at the time, and tied it in with Earth Day." The idea took off--Purdue sold the rights to Dixon-Ticonderoga, where the product was marketed as Prang Crayons. Wong continued to receive royalties for years afterward.

Following graduation, Wong scored an engineering job at Procter & Gamble. "They asked me to tell them about something creative I had done. I whipped out a crayon, drew a smiley face, told [the interviewer] the story, and he made me the job offer on site."

Ryan Howard, a member of the biodegradable soy ski wax team (a replacement for paraffin ski wax), also found his experience useful later in life.  After winning the competition in 1998, Howard went on to found Chicago Soy Dairy, a company that makes vegan soy ice cream, marshmallows, cheese, and more. "The competition gives you the confidence to go out in the future and do things on your own just because of the sheer amount of work that it takes. You're doing a massive project with research and development and marketing," he says.

Agee, one of the corn bandage creators, also has big plans post-graduation. He hopes to design products for human health--and maybe get the corn bandage commercialized. "That would be the dream, for sure," he says.

Follow Fast Company on Twitter. Ariel Schwartz can be reached by email.

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