Students look to solve global food security at Queen’s challenge

Posted on December 12, 2017

The Smith MMA team at the Queen’s International Innovation Challenge, held in Toronto in November.
The Smith MMA team at the Queen’s International Innovation Challenge, held in Toronto in November.

Kingston, ON — The Queen’s International Innovation Challenge was recently held, with the finals in Toronto on Nov. 24. Teams came up with solutions for one of the world’s most pressing issues: food security. We spoke with Dean McKeown, Associate Director, Administration, at Smith School of Business’ Scotiabank Centre for Customer Analytics, about this year’s event.

What’s unique about this challenge?

It’s an opportunity for post-secondary students to work on a real business problem that has a huge impact on society. It gives them a chance to work with data and analytics and manage their presentation abilities. These are all skills they’ll use in their careers.

How did food security come to be this year's topic?

One of our faculty, Steve Thomas, has done work with the United Nations. He went to Kenya and trained some of their people on analytics. That gave us connections with several UN agencies — the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme. From talking to them, and talking with people at the federal government, we found that if there is one big issue in the world that’s common to everyone, it’s food security.

What made food security such a good topic for this type of challenge?

The interesting thing about food security is that it can have a different meaning depending on where you are. If you are a single parent in an urban centre in North America, food security means putting food on the plate. Food security for a farmer in Somalia is about the quality of the soil and the quality of the water. Food security has strong appeal to any student anywhere in the world. We had teams from Australia, from throughout Europe and North America. There was real global appeal to this topic.

Tell us about the winning idea.

It came from the team from Ukraine. Their solution used drones to fly over farm fields and, with a back-end system using artificial intelligence, they could determine what types of disease or fungi were infecting crops, and how the disease was spreading. Image recognition software would take a picture of, say, a corn leaf as the drone flew over, then compare that photo to known fungi. The system could figure out what type of fungus was affecting the corn and let the farmer know that there’s fungus in this specific part of your 100-acre field, and the fungus is spreading in this direction. So then the farmer would know how to treat the problem. The team’s solution was really impressive. They won the $20,000 first-place prize.

Any other interesting ideas?

The team from Portugal worked on diabetes. One of their team members is from Brazil, where diabetes is a big problem. They came up with a process to help someone with diabetes understand the nutritional components of a meal, to help them control their diabetes. The Master of Management Analytics team from Smith had what they called the Mama box, a box of food with the right nutritional requirements of a breastfeeding mom. They targeted Guatemala to make sure the babies had the best nutritional value in the first months of their lives. And the team from St. Lawrence College, which came in second, targeted farmers in Sudan by setting up hydroponic growth pods in shipping containers. There was a lot of diversity in the challenge and we saw some great ideas.