FIGHTING FOOD SCARES
CET’s HonestBlox among finalists for Pirate Entrepreneurship Challenge
Just weeks before Christmas, the Centers for Disease Control linked an E. coli outbreak in 23 states to romaine lettuce grown in California.
A group of East Carolina University students may not be able to prevent such outbreaks, but their goal is to use blockchain technology to reduce the impact of such food scares and help consumers make informed choices when selecting produce.
The team from the College of Engineering and Technology — Amelia Hernandez, Quint Flores, Seymone Gugneja, Jahina Hayes and Riley Valencia — has created HonestBlox and will be competing in the finals of the Pirate Entrepreneurship Challenge on Feb. 19.
Their inspiration came in part from a 2006 food scare involving another E. coli outbreak that resulted in hundreds of illnesses, three deaths and a recall of spinach that had major impacts on the agricultural industry.
“There was one crate (of spinach) that had E. coli, but it took two or three weeks to track it back to the source,” said Hernandez, a sophomore from Jacksonville who serves as the team lead. “A lot of farms shut down because of one crate, and there was a huge market crash. Using this technology, we can track a crate to its exact location and will need just a couple of seconds to do what used to take two or three weeks. It saves time, it saves lives and it saves the farmers and their businesses.”
Blockchain is a sort of record-keeping technology that can be distributed. At least one major retailer, Walmart, is requiring some of its suppliers to use the technology in association with IBM, but HonestBlox is offering a local solution to help farmers and distributors use blockchain so products can get to market.
But beyond that, HonestBlox wants to put that technology in the hands of consumers who currently don’t have access to the information that retailers do.
“We created an app, and the idea is that the consumer can go into a grocery store, open the app on their phone and look at a potato or an apple or any kind of produce and there will be a sticker on it that has a code,” Hernandez said. “They can scan it or type in the code, and it will tell them where the produce came from, if it’s organic or not, how long ago it was grown and that sort of information so people can work preventatively.”
The group believes consumers deserve more information about where the produce they eat comes from so they can make informed decisions.
“Every step will be seen,” said Hayes, a junior computer science major from Fayetteville who serves as the front end developer. “Even when they come to pick the produce up, consumers will be able to see what kind of truck was used, if it was refrigerated or not, the treatment it has undergone throughout the entire shipment process and how long it takes to get from one place to another.”
Even when there are no food recalls, team members believe HonestBlox will be a valuable resource for consumers.
“We discovered it’s a problem in agriculture where some things are labeled as organic or local when they’re not,” said Valencia, a junior computer science major from Fuquay-Varina. “A consumer will be able to see if they are actually local or if they are actually organic.”
HonestBlox could also be used to help protect farmers from ransomware or other types of cyberattacks.
“We plan to expand from the agriculture industry into other industries by using blockchain as a cybersecurity tool to protect people’s money and businesses’ money,” said Flores, a junior management information systems major from Greenville.
The ECU Miller School of Entrepreneurship organizes the Pirate Challenge, which is a business pitch competition now in its third year. HonestBlox is among six finalists from the record 123 teams that entered the competition this year. Another CET student, Hanna Johns with her Systems 11-66 portable traffic signal, is also a finalist.
Prize money and in-kind services for the winner total $100,000, making the Pirate Entrepreneurship Challenge one of the richest competitions of its type in the Southeast.
“That would pretty much set us up for our first year,” Valencia said of the prize money. “We would spend a lot of that on expanding and building our brand and giving ourselves a good foundation, and from there, we already have clients interested in our product, so this would help us finalize and refine everything.”
Team members are preparing for the Feb. 19 competition and working toward contracts with a couple of clients. They’re also looking to promote HonestBlox wherever they can.
“We’re working on building our brand for ourselves,” said Gugneja, a junior computer science major from Raleigh. “We’re working on our website, and we’re working on social media, and we’re working on getting our name out there.”
Team members came up with the name HonestBlox because of their beliefs in putting important and accurate information into the hands of consumers.
“This offers a ton of efficiency, but the big part of this is helping the consumer,” Hernandez said.
For more information, email the HonestBlox team at email@example.com.