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Processing innovation could give spuds new appeal

A three-student team from the University of Idaho and Washington State University took home $25,000 from a recent Rice University business startup competition and came back with high expectations that they have an idea that can transform the way people eat potatoes.

The group’s idea has generated enough interest that team members Gaylene Anderson and Jacob Pierson hope to start an Idaho business called Solanux, based on innovations developed by UI Food Science professor Kerry Huber.

Current potato processing, to produce easily stored granules and flakes for everything from chips to frozen hash browns, uses heat that breaks down potato starch, making it easily digestible as carbohydrates. That’s not totally beneficial, said Anderson, since heating largely reduces a raw potato’s fiber value and creates foods with high glycemic content.

“That’s why people with diabetes are not supposed to eat potatoes,” Anderson said. “It spikes their blood glucose.”

Huber’s process is designed to preserve the potato’s “resistant” starch. In addition to keeping fiber value, it would also eliminate the glucose rush and lower fat and cholesterol levels, according to Anderson.

Huber’s research has led to considerable industry interest, said Anderson. She noted that Idaho-based J.R. Simplot Corp. is prepared to invest in additional tests to evaluate Huber’s potato processing work.

At Rice, the Palouse team took fifth among 42 teams invited to compete in what the university describes as the world’s biggest and richest student business plan competition. This year a total of $1.5 million was awarded by judges to winning teams.

About 10 percent of the current potato market is sold in dried or flake form. But that portion could easily grow if Solanux produces a food ingredient that could replace wheat or potato flour in many food products, said Anderson.

Another possible benefit would be potato-based foods that are attractive to dieters who have allergic reactions to corn or wheat products, she added.

Huber would be involved in the company if it reaches the stage of successfully licensing its technology, said Anderson.

Even so, Huber noted that additional research and tests need to be done to find out if the process is viable and leads to products consumers want.

Anderson said the share of the prize money they won in Texas will likely be used to help defray the startup costs of Solanux.

Because Huber’s research was conducted at the university, the patents for the process will be held by the University of Idaho. Anderson is an MBA student at the UI; Pierson is a law student there as well. The third team member was Anna Hansen, a senior accounting student at WSU.

Anderson, who currently works for the UI Office of Technology Transfer, said the agreement provides a royalty payment to the university if Solanux turns out commercially successful products.