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Research and Innovation

Food Processing Innovation Center Poised to Boost N.C. Economy

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A new initiative taking shape in Kannapolis could create jobs, revitalize rural communities, open new markets for entrepreneurs and farmers … and the list goes on.

Years in the making, the North Carolina Food Processing Innovation Center (FPIC) leapt from dream to reality with the recent passage of the North Carolina state budget, which included $4.4 million in funding. The new center, set to open in 2018, also will receive $700,000 in recurring funds for operational support.

An initiative of North Carolina State University, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC), the FPIC is poised to revolutionize food processing and manufacturing in North Carolina.

“This is the culmination of a process that NC State and the department and a lot of partners have gone through to do what we think can transform North Carolina’s economy into a food manufacturing economy,” said North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. “It’s a perfect fit. We’ve got an $84 billion industry in agriculture and agribusiness, so we think this is the defining moment for the future of North Carolina.”

The 10,000-square-foot facility – to be housed in the NCRC Core Laboratory Building – will be the only of its kind in the country. While there are other university-based food innovation centers nationwide, the FPIC will be the only one that is cGMP certified, which means that an FDA-regulated system of controls will ensure a high level of quality at every step.

Mario Ferruzzi, a professor in the NC State Plants for Human Health Institute and FPIC subcommittee chair, says the center is designed to engage entrepreneurs, researchers and industry giants alike.

“A pilot plant facility such as the one we’re envisioning would provide flexibility to actually scale up and commercialize ideas, for small entrepreneurs who are looking for facilities that are able to bring them market-ready products. …The research and development piece engages university researchers and allows us to think about how we can translate our technology into something that is commercializable.”

The FPIC also will enable national and international companies – from equipment to ingredient manufacturers – to collaborate with faculty and entrepreneurs.

“Providing a space where ideas can actually come to fruition … allows us to engage in really ground-breaking research,” Ferruzzi said.

The center’s location in an agriculturally diverse state also is a boon, he said.

“The raw materials that come from this state are second to none, so we have tremendous diversity and tremendous capacity from an agricultural perspective,” he said. “But to really grab value from that … would be to transform those materials. So what we would be able to do is to facilitate growth of food manufacturing that would allow us to do more of that transformation here and not have our materials ship out of state.”

Richard Linton, dean of the NC State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, describes the FPIC as a “base camp” for the creation of food processing and manufacturing facilities across the state, in the counties where agricultural products are raised and grown.

“Our hope is that this initiative will help build up the tax base and revive local economies in many of the counties that need it most,” he said.

Sen. Paul Newton echoes Linton’s vision.

“This project has the potential for a tremendous manufacturing breakthrough that could impact rural North Carolina,” he said. “What we’re doing here can absolutely take our largest industry in North Carolina to a whole new level, and that is going to directly help rural North Carolina because that’s where we grow the food.”

The wheels are in motion for a grand opening in 2018. A planning committee, chaired by Troxler, is working to complete a business plan by September.

As part of that process, a small task force will visit similar university food innovation centers across the country over the next couple of months to learn what’s working, review revenue models and make recommendations to the committee on design and development.

“We know we’ve got the business climate,” Troxler said. “We’re constantly rated the top state in the nation as far as the place to do business. We’ve got the ag industry. And now, putting this in place so you combine all of this together, this is wonderful.”

This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.