ConAgra Foods will research two key product ingredients — tomatoes and popcorn — as part of an expanded collaboration with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln at its Nebraska Innovation Campus.
The company announced the plan Friday in Lincoln at a groundbreaking event for the public-private research center.
The Omaha-based maker of Orville Redenbacher's and Act II brand popcorns and Hunt's tomato sauce and ketchup said it will grow, breed and research tomatoes in greenhouses at the center and continue its popcorn research as part of the collaboration.
ConAgra is the first private business to announce participation in research at the new campus. The news is expected to spur interest from other potential partners.
“The first one is the most difficult, because they're buying into the dream a little bit,” said Dan Duncan, executive director for the campus. “But as construction starts and people see buildings going up, we're confident it's going to help create a sense of urgency.”
The “dream” involves 2 million square feet of research-and-development space on a 249-acre campus, formerly the state fairgrounds. The first 500,000 square feet is expected to be complete in five years. The public-private research and technology development center will eventually house as many as 7,000 students, scientists, faculty and others collaborating on projects in the areas of food, water and fuel.
“The modern economy is based on innovation,” UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman said at the Friday event, which featured Orville Redenbacher's popcorn and a special ice cream flavor — Peter Pan Innovation Land — created by the university Dairy Store using ConAgra's peanut butter brand.
Perlman said the collaboration reaffirms ConAgra's commitment to Nebraska, where it originated in 1919 as Nebraska Consolidated Mills, and helps make the campus “a national hub of food safety and food process innovation.”
ConAgra is a natural fit for the campus, Duncan said.
“They're a global company, and their world headquarters is 50 miles down the road. It makes a lot of sense, and has made a lot of sense, for us to work together,” he said.
Being the first major partner at the Innovation Campus is “a rare opportunity that we could not pass up,” said Gary Rodkin, ConAgra chief executive officer. “The expertise in food science at UNL, when combined with the expertise at ConAgra Foods, represents valuable potential in our ongoing momentum in the area of product innovation.”
Al Bolles, ConAgra executive vice president for research, quality and innovation, said he hopes the relationship “will serve as the model for successful collaboration between the private sector and public universities.”
All tomatoes for Hunt's products are grown in California, and part of the research will help determine whether scientists can simulate those conditions to grow tomatoes year-round in Nebraska greenhouses, he said.
More research projects will be announced later, Bolles said:
“Rest assured that we have a full pipeline of ideas and investments that we think are going to help us grow more and help the University of Nebraska grow more.”
ConAgra scientists already serve as adjunct faculty at the university, said Duncan. He said the company would lease space from the private development firm handling construction, which in turn has a 99-year lease on the land from the Board of Regents.
The expanded collaboration is expected to create opportunities for student research into food-safety practices and into application of microbiology and robotics in food commercialization.
“They're a company that strives for innovation and really wants to engage in doing some things that we as as university couldn't do alone and they as a food company really can't do alone,” Duncan said.
Gov. Dave Heineman called the Innovation Campus one of Nebraska's most ambitious projects.
“We want to grow and attract new, technology-focused companies to our state,” he said. “Innovation Campus represents an important opportunity for the University of Nebraska to leverage its research talent to fuel economic growth.”
NU President James B. Milliken thanked Heineman and the Legislature for the state's $25 million investment in the campus, approved in 2011. State funds will help renovate the old 4-H Building on the site and help build a research facility.
“I am delighted that our first private-sector collaborator at Innovation Campus is such a successful, well-known Nebraska company — one that shares the University of Nebraska's interest in, and commitment to, sustainable production of quality food to feed the world's population,” Milliken said.
Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler, an Omaha native and Benson High graduate, said he's pleased the project represents Lincoln and Omaha growing together.
“The university system is already a major economic development engine for Lincoln and the state of Nebraska. The Nebraska Innovation Campus project raises the bar and positions and focuses and elevates certain powerful assets of the university system, not only onto the national stage, but onto the global stage as well.”
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