“When I earned my PhD in food science, I knew very little about business,” confesses Minqi Wang. In April, Wang, a postdoctoral UMass research associate since graduating in 2016, captured first place in the finals of the Innovation Challenge, an annual competition run by the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship. The Challenge and its judges evaluate new venture proposals by students. Wang’s win brought her startup, Nutriply, $31,000 in equity-free funding and a higher profile with buyers and investors. Nutriply develops delivery systems that encapsulate and protect food components such as probiotics. The scientist/entrepreneur does her research at the university’s Center for Bioactive Delivery, a lab overseen by food science professor David Julian McClements, whom she considers a mentor.
Probiotics, notes Wang, are living entities with a limited shelf life. Nutriply’s technology is focused on increasing the number of cells that are able to live through harsh manufacturing conditions. That, Wang says, is promising, given the market’s potential for growth. “It’s at least a $2 billion opportunity,” she observes, noting that probiotics work well with drinks, food, and gummies (the latter are Nutriply’s current target market). The holy grail, she continues, would be a single innovation adaptable to all probiotic products. That, however, is unlikely, considering the varying characteristics of different foods, temperatures, and environments. “I’m trying to work with different, producers, including startups,” she emphasizes. That, of course, calls for considerable market intelligence—a Berthiaume Center strength.
Lessons in Entrepreneurship
“The Innovation Challenge has pushed me to practice and improve my pitching and presentation skills,” explains Wang, who has vied in the competition for three years in a row. “It’s also helped me to expand my business network and better understand my markets.” In declaring her this year’s winner, the judges offered timely advice. The panel comprised Douglas Berthiaume ’71, the center’s namesake; Tom Heiser ’84, who is currently executive chairman of Mark43, a venture-backed public-safety cloud company, and chairman of the board at Acoustic, a private-equity-backed marketing cloud company; and Carolina Orbea, director of the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area office of EY-Parthenon, who has experience in carve-outs and integration transactions. The judges suggested that Wang do more marketing research on demand and its generational segments and devise go-to-market strategies by age group. “Persistence is omnipotent!” she recalls being told by Heiser.
On the UMass Amherst campus, the Berthiaume Center is gateway to a vibrant ecosystem for budding entrepreneurs. “I’ve used many of those resources; they’ve all contributed to my success in the Challenge,” observes Wang. After earning her PhD, she joined the campus branch of I-Corps, which fosters skills for technology commercialization. At I-Corps, she gained proficiency with a Lean LaunchPad approach and interviewed hundreds of potential producer/customers. “I did all of those interviews myself,” she recalls. “They validated the market.”
Wang also acquired an influential mentor, Karen Utgoff. A former Innovation Challenge judge, Utgoff is UMass campus director of I-Corps and a key player with the campus’s Institute of Applied Life Sciences (IALS), which houses research and energizes technology transfer and industry collaboration.
In the summer of 2019, Wang was one of 29 student participants in the 10-week Collegiate Summer Venture Program. An accelerator for student startups, the program is a collaboration between the Berthiaume Center and the regional group, Valley Venture Mentors. Five months later, Nutriply was a finalist in the Innovation Challenge’s Seed Pitch competition. With that competitive experience under her belt, she won it outright in 2020.* By then, Wang had moved her target market from beverages to gummies, based on superior chemistry and interviews with potential buyers and producers. That set the table for her big win in this April’s finals. Her product’s protective layering of food-grade ingredients, she notes, improves probiotic stability and protects the gummies during manufacturing. That should prove a sell with probiotic companies. “Both our UMass-licensed product and I have continued to adapt,” she says. “It’s been a great learning experience.”
*The Innovation Challenge comprises four stages: the Minute Pitch, Seed Pitch, semifinals, and finals.