Filling Social Needs

Senior part of teams' efforts to sustain environment and create access to potable water

Natalie Stephenson is serious about sustainability.

A senior majoring in marketing and data analytics, Stephenson was part of a team of Purdue students who created a soy-based drinking straw to earn top honors at this spring’s Student Soybean Product Innovation Competition funded by the Indiana Soybean Checkoff.

This summer, she’ll travel with another group of students to Chiang Mai, Thailand, to install 20 purification systems that will provide 300 people with drinking water indefinitely.

“A biodegradable drinking straw really combines a concern in today’s headlines with the potential of innovation,” says Nancy Cline, Indiana Soybean Alliance grain marketing and utilization committee chair. “Team Stroy captured the essence of this contest. We want to show the versatility of soybeans while addressing a need in society.”

The contest encourages Purdue University students to develop novel applications for soybeans that meet a market need. The 2018-19 competition winner, Team Stroy, took home the award for replacing a common restaurant item with a biodegradable, environmentally friendly straw.

In addition to Stephenson, the team was made up of Morgan Malm, a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in food science; and Ruth Zhong, a senior studying electrical engineering. The trio received a $20,000 prize for their first-place entry.

“I was challenged to come up with creative solutions to problems, and I was able to put what I’ve been learning in the classroom into practice in an applicable setting,” says Stephenson. “I also developed a passion for biodegradable material production. It’s so rewarding to put time and energy into a product worth fighting for, and I wholeheartedly believe that Stroy has a true potential to significantly positively impact the environment.”

The team’s invention, Stroy, a completely biodegradable soy-based drinking straw, offers the material consistency of a plastic straw. This straw outperforms the primary commercialized alternative, paper straws, in quality, price and materials. Team Stroy wants to enter three markets: fast-food chains, fast-casual dining and the coffee and snack shop industry. If accomplished, Stroy will increase demand for soybeans, generate jobs and improve the overall agricultural economy.

Stephenson also is a member of PureAqua Global, student run organization with a mission of providing clean drinking water to impoverished villages across Southeast Asia and beyond.

Chad Jafvert, a Purdue professor of environmental and ecological engineering, developed a water purification system that requires limited resources and enables villages to sustain the system long after volunteer assistance has gone. Krannert Professor Chad Allred organizes student groups to travel to these remote areas to implement the purification system.

Led by Stephenson, PureAqua Global has launched a one-time GoFundMe page to cover the $5,000 estimated cost of this summer’s project.

“This is the first step in a long term development of a sustainable non-profit that would be able to monitor the systems, provide maintenance, and provide ongoing education,” she says. “We are very passionate about this project and believe that it can save and change lives within local communities.”