What does your high school resume look like? Were you the head of your class? Did you make the honor roll? Did you team up with your sister to create a NASA-approved granola bar named the Solar Flare and win a Spirit of Innovation Award for it? Shannon and Mikayla Diesch did and MTV Geek was lucky enough to talk to the Battle Creek, Michigan sisters about their experience as innovators and award winners in anticipation of this year’s competition.
The Spirit of Innovation Awards is a national competition in which teams of high school students from around the country put their mathematical, scientific and engineering skills to the test in an attempt to create new products that can change the way people live.
Last year, with some mentoring from Kellogg’s, Shannon and Mikayla Diesch were the proud winners of this award in the Food Sciences category. After months of hard work, Mikayla and Shannon revealed the Solar Flare, a granola bar filled with nutrients, vitamins and a burst of flavor perfectly aligned to the needs of astronauts. Here’s what these innovative sisters had to say about their experience.
MTV Geek: Entrants in The Spirit of Innovation Awards have several categories to choose from; what made you decide Space Nutrition was the category for you?
Shannon Diesch: Being from Battle Creek, Michigan, which is where the headquarters for Kellogg’s is located, food science has always been floating around our heads. Mikayla and I didn’t know very much about food science, and didn’t even think of it as a science at all. When our school announced the competition, we decided we should see what it is all about for ourselves.
Mikayla Diesch: It really wasn’t a difficult decision for me. With Kellogg’s based right here in Battle Creek, Michigan, I’ve grown up with food science all around me. When my school announced the competition I was really interested in finding out more about what food science really was all about. I thought the competition was a perfect opportunity to do just that.
Geek: How much time went into actually designing/preparing the Solar Flare bar for the competition? What challenges did you face and how were they overcome?
Shannon: We learned about the competition from our school in early October. We spent many weekends and weekdays after school for the next month and a half designing Solar Flare. The product was due to the Conrad Foundation by November 20th. Then in February we got to go to Mattson Foods laboratory facility in Foster City, California, where we got to refine our formula with actual food scientists. That was probably the best part of the experience, because we got to go into real food laboratories and work with real scientists. It was really awesome.
The main challenge we faced was probably figuring out how to work as a team. We originally had 4 team members and just figuring out how to coordinate everybody’s after-school schedules and lives was really challenging. But everyone ended up doing a fabulous job and I think we all learned a lot along the way.
Mikayla: We put a lot of time and effort into creating the Solar Flare bar. We spent almost every weekend for a few months working on flavors and making sure it wasn’t too sticky or too crumbly. NASA had some really specific requirements that had to be met in order for a nutrition bar to be used in space flight. We thought we had everything figured out, and then just a week or so before the deadline to turn in our product for evaluation we discovered that we had made a mistake and our nutrition calculations were all wrong. We had to start again and just managed to get a new formula done in time to meet the submission deadline. I think the main challenge for us was that we didn’t have a background in food science so we had to just jump in and figure it out as we went. It created a learning experience that was a lot of fun.
Geek: When deciding what nutrients and vitamins would go into the Solar Flare granola bar, was anything added specifically to aid astronauts spending long periods of time in space?
Shannon: NASA had a set of very strict requirements for the competition. We specifically added extra flavors and real fruit to give the astronauts a burst of flavor because their sense of taste deteriorates in microgravity.
Mikayla: Solar Flare had to meet all the requirements that the competition had set forth, which were also the requirements that NASA had set. There was a specific nutritional profile that NASA had developed that included not only the number of calories but dictated how many calories come from fat and proteins and carbohydrates. Another factor that played a role in our formulation was that when in microgravity an astronaut’s sense of taste is diminished. We experimented with various flavors and also included whole fruit in our bar so that it had a burst of flavor for the astronauts so they could enjoy the taste as well as benefit from the nutritional profile. Finally, we had some other considerations such as keeping our water activity low so that Solar Flare would have a long shelf life. I guess NASA doesn’t want food going bad sitting in the storage module of the space station.
Geek: Living in Michigan, what influence did the Kellogg brand have on your final product?
Shannon: We live in Battle Creek, Michigan, which is Cereal City of the world. Over 80 cereal companies started here, including Kellogg’s, Post, and General Mills. Kellogg’s actually funded both of our trips to California. They helped when we were creating our presentation for the Innovation Summit. They sent in experts to critique our speeches and give us advice on how to improve it. They also sent food scientists to California to work with all the teams in the finals. Kellogg’s has also offered to pay for our ingredients for our first run of our bars. They have been incredibly generous and it’s been amazing working with them.
Mikayla: Kellogg’s played a huge role in our final product. During the competition they provided mentors for us so we could ask questions and bounce ideas off of them. They provided so much help during and after the competition. They have even offered to pay for the first run of our bars to be manufactured. I also have to mention JPG Resources/Bridgetown Bakery. Kellogg’s put us in touch with them and they have been wonderful to work with. They have provided us with access to their food laboratory anytime we want. They even gave us our own set of keys so we can go in and work after school.
Geek: Solar flares are a pretty intense, how did you decide to name your product after one?
Shannon: Solar flares give off a lot of energy, like our bar. Our bar has 16 grams of protein in a 100 gram bar. It contains enough energy to get through a meal without being hungry. Also, it seemed to fit the space theme of the Conrad Awards.
Mikayla: Solar Flares are enormous bursts of energy created as a result of nuclear fusion which occurs on the sun as matter is combined. We figured that our nutrition bar is a carefully constructed combination of matter specifically designed to give NASA astronauts energy in space. We thought that the name had a nice ring to it, and it fit the space theme of the competition.
Geek: What was it like to compete in a national competition with your sister? Was it difficult to work side-by-side with someone you already see everyday?
Shannon: It was actually really awesome! My sister is my best friend. I’ve known her my entire life and I don’t know what I would do without her. We could go home after school and discuss our ideas with each other. It was just an awesome experience, and I’d totally do it again if given the opportunity.
Mikayla: It was not difficult at all to work with my sister. We come from a family with four kids all very close in age. We are a very close knit family and Shannon has been by best friend for as long as I can remember. We can come home after working and bounce ideas off of one another. Plus, we knew that if either of us came up with a not-so-great idea we would be honest with one another, as only a sibling can.
Geek: What was your reaction when you found out you made it to the finals? How did you react when you found out you were the overall winners?
Shannon: I never expected to actually make it to the finals, but when we found out I was so excited.
When we found out we were the overall winners of the Space Nutrition Category I was ecstatic. It was truly amazing. Mikayla and I received the People’s Choice Award, and Pharrell Williams came on stage to congratulate us. It was amazing to actually receive the award for something we had been working on for so long.
Mikayla: To be honest I didn’t think we would make it to the finals. Our team worked hard, but it seemed unlikely to me like we had much of a chance at moving on to the next round given that it was a national competition. When we found out we were one of the top six finalists we were ecstatic. It was just amazing because I never really expected to get that far considering how many other smart kids are out there.
In the end, we actually won two parts of the competition: The People’s Choice Award and the Space Nutrition Category. The People’s Choice Award was where people voted online for the best marketing video from all categories. We found out we won the People’s Choice Award first, and I was so happy because it won us two tickets on a zero gravity airplane. The Space Nutrition winners were announced last out of the four categories which was really nerve wrecking. I was completely blown away when they announced us as the winners of that as well.
Geek: What do you want people to know about the Solar Flare bar? In your opinion what benefits will the product provide to people?
Shannon: STEM is a very important to me and Mikayla and we decided that Solar Flare should be used to help other nerds like us discover STEM fields. We are currently working on creating a STEM kit for schools so they can have funding for different math, science and space activities.
Mikayla: Solar Flare is the best granola bar I’ve ever had. It is full of protein and has an amazing cinnamon apple cranberry flavor. Our bar creates a unique fusion of natural ingredient and advanced technologies which is really a cool reflection about how my generation is changing the way we see the world. Now we can have a nutrition bar that meets all the engineered specifications for NASA, but is still healthy and natural. Our goal was to create a nutrition and delicious bar, but we are also planning to use our Solar Flare bars as a promotional and funding vehicle for advancing STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) education in schools. As nerds ourselves, we feel that the sports teams have a lot of fundraising efforts focused on them and we think that the math and science classes should also have similar programs in place. We are aligning our efforts with the Conrad Foundation to use the Solar Flare Bar to help provide a vehicle for schools to participate in different STEM-related activities.
Geek: Tell us about your kickstarter plan, how much funding do you need to get your business of the ground? What can our audience do to help you reach your goal?
Shannon: We want to reach all the other geeks and nerds out there who know what it is like have had a hard time in school because they were smart, or liked rockets or comic books or robots. We want to help the future generations understand that is it cool to like science or math and are looking to the geek community to join us in providing the next generation with the tools and encouragement they need to become future scientists, mathematicians and leaders.
Mikayla: We’re not sure what crowdfunding platform we will be using just yet, if it will be kickstarter.com or indiegogo.com, or one of the other great sites out there when we launch in the coming weeks. We are planning to reach out to all the math, science and space nerds and geeks out there and ask them to join us to help the next generation of kids know that it is cool to like math, or science or Star Trek.
We want to support them and show them that there is an entire community of us ready to help them reach their dreams, and hopefully make it a bit easier and more acceptable for them to embrace their inner nerd than it was for us. As part of our outreach, we are planning to send kits to schools that will contain various Space and STEM related activities so they can participate.
For example, I am a member of the board of Yuri’s Night and it would be great if high school and middle school kids could participate in the Yuri’s Night celebration of space flight. Or perhaps students could launch an experiment on a suborbital rocket flight like the ones Masten Space Systems are about to launch for $99. All of this requires money, which is why we are donating Solar Flare bars to the cause as a way to raise money just like the football teams and cheerleaders do today.
Geek: Is the spread innovation something you want to pursue throughout your lifetime? What plans do you have for the future?
Shannon: Innovation is definitely something I want to pursue in my life. I’m not exactly sure what I want to do for a career yet, but this competition has opened my eyes to a completely new side of business. It’s amazing how quickly it developed, and how it became part of who we are.
Mikayla: Innovation is really something that I want to pursue. It is really satisfying to see something I created become an actual product and hopefully help to change the world in a positive way. I am not sure what I want to do yet for a career, but I’m planning to keep all my options open.
Geek: College Plans?
Shannon: I am only a freshman, but still plans on attending Stanford, Harvard, or MIT.
Mikayla: I will start applying for colleges at the end of this summer. I hope to attend either Harvard or Stanford.
Geek: After participating in, and winning, the Spirit of Innovation Awards, what advice do you have for future participants?
Shannon: You have to work very hard during this competition. It’s not like your ordinary ‘do research and present it’ competition. It requires creative thinking, innovation, and dedication. And even if you don’t win, you’ll get some amazing experiences that you never would have before. You learn how to work better with your team and how to create a product that is viable in the market place.
Mikayla: I would like to tell all of the participants that this competition isn’t easy, and you might not win. But it is worth every second. You meet fabulous mentors, and you will get some experience that is almost impossible to find anywhere else. You will learn how to create a product that is viable in the marketplace and best of all you will learn so much more about yourself.
Geek: Are you still involved in the Spirit of Innovation Awards?
Shannon: We are still very involved with the Spirit of Innovation Awards. We have been to several conferences with the Executive Director Josh Neubert, including the American Institute of Astronautics and Aeronautics, and in March we are planning on attending the National Science Teachers Association in San Francisco. We have been trying to spread the word about the Spirit of Innovation Awards and what a great experience it has been for us. We are planning on attending the Summit again this year, and will be presenting to the current participants.
Mikayla: We have been working very closely with the Conrad Foundation. Together we are working on promoting STEM to students across the nation. We have been invited to present at this year’s Spirit of Innovation Summit in California and we are also attending the National Science Teachers Association with the Foundation in March.
Geek: Are there any entries this year you find particularly interesting?
Shannon: Since the competition is currently going on, I don’t think I should give too much away about this year’s teams. Based on what I have seen from last year’s competition I am sure that there will be some really cool ideas that the teams come up with. Maybe MTV could even attend the Summit to see firsthand.
Mikayla: From what I hear the teams have once again come up with some amazing ideas this year. Since the contest is ongoing it would not be fair for me to comment on this year’s teams, but I can tell you that there will be some amazing innovation at the Summit. I can share that in years past there have been incredible ideas that have really amazed me, like the kids who invented a system that generates electricity from geothermal vent on the ocean floor. I believe that the Department of Energy is currently working with them to fully develop their technology.
This year’s competition is already underway, the finalists will be announced on February 3rd and the overall winners will be announced in April. Stay tuned to MTV Geek in the coming weeks for information on the Spirit of Innovation Awards and talented students like Shannon & Mikayla Diesch!