Big Ideas take Center Stage:

Early-Career Researchers Shine at Big Ideas 3.0

On the evening of Thursday, August 31, more than 600 people faced a difficult choice: deciding which of three potentially life-changing ideas should be the first to advance.

It was the pivotal moment of an event at the Danforth Center called “Conversations: Big Ideas 3.0.” Combining TED Talks and Shark Tank, this inspiring evening featured three teams of early-career Danforth Center researchers—each pitching their own groundbreaking concept for how to use plant science to better our world. Following the presentations, the packed AT&T Auditorium and Langenberg Theater at the Danforth Center (plus an additional audience watching online) were tasked with voting for their favorite. And, in turn, choosing who should win a $10,000 grant to pursue their idea.

Team EcoTAG on stage at Big Ideas 3.0. The program on August 31 marked the third iteration of this highly popular event, which debuted at the Center in 2017. From left to right: Somnath Koley, Poonam Jyoti, and Stewart Morley of the Allen lab.

What If?

After remarks from the evening’s moderator, Chip Lerwick, Missouri Market Leader at Aon, the first team to take to the stage was “Team EcoTAG,” comprised of three members of Dr. Doug Allen’s lab. Their idea was for a new, sustainable method of oil production using cover crops—or crops grown to maintain farmland in between growing seasons of traditional food crops.

This is what I would characterize as not just best practice, but next practice. Dr. Benjamin Ola Akande
Sr. Vice President at Stifel Financial Corp and Big Ideas 3.0 panelist, on Team EcoTAG’s Big Idea.


The Big Ideas 3.0 on-stage panel asked questions and gave feedback on presentations. From left: Janet Wilding, Asst. Vice Chancellor of Economic Development at the University of Missouri-St. Louis; Dr. Benjamin Ola Akande, Sr. Vice President at Stifel Financial Corp.; and Marilyn Bush, President of Bank of America St. Louis.

The second team to present was “Team Whatley” from the Danforth Center’s Education Research and Outreach lab. Inspired by the work of horticulturist Booker T. Whatley of Tuskegee University, their idea was to help alleviate food disparity across the country by creating “Whatley Centers.” The team described how these “living-laboratories,” of greenhouses, gardens, test kitchens, and more, could help inspire the next generation of plant scientists while feeding and empowering marginalized communities. “We believe that feeding the world is as much about challenging the boundaries of technology, as it is about challenging the boundaries of the social environments that they exist in,” said Team Whatley member Antonio Brazelton.

Team Whatley on stage at Big Ideas 3.0. From left to right: Zach Stafford, Antonio Brazelton, and Kurly Taylor Jr. from the Danforth Center Education Research and Outreach lab.

The final idea of the night came from “Team Metablify” of Dr. Ivan Baxter’s lab. They presented a concept for groundbreaking software that will enable scientists to detect new varieties of certain plant chemicals that are essential to the production of many important medicines. Britney Millman, of Team Metablify, described the technology as “a tool to tie together plant science and human health in a way that not only increases biological understanding, but also helps save lives.”

And the Winner is…

After all the votes were counted, Anne Phillips and Kaushik Panda, members of the past two winning teams of Big Ideas, announced the third: Team Metablify. With this win, the team will have funding to help turn their big idea into a reality, and hopefully soon, change the world.

Team Metablify after their win at Big Ideas 3.0. From left to right: Britney Millman, Allen Hubbard, and Louis Connelly of the Baxter lab.

The Next Big Idea

By supporting the Danforth Center, you can help bring even more big ideas to life by providing critical funds for similar groundbreaking early-stage research projects. Help create innovative solutions to our greatest challenges by making a donation to the Danforth Center today.

Watch the Event

Event Recording by HEC

Conversations: Big Ideas 3.0

Media Sponsor

For information on sponsoring future Conversations, contact Lee’at Bachar, Corporate and Foundation Relations Officer, at 314.587.1210 or email: