ConAgra Foods is first private collaborator at Nebraska Innovation Campus
conagra ConAgra Foods is first private collaborator at Nebraska Innovation Campus

The University of Nebraska’s Innovation Campus has its first private-industry partner – and it’s a name many Nebraskans will recognize.

During a celebration today themed “Breaking Ground for the Future,” the university announced a new level of collaboration with ConAgra Foods, the Omaha-headquartered food company that has brands in 97 percent of America’s households.

Through the collaboration, ConAgra Foods will leverage leased space in greenhouses at Innovation Campus to grow and research tomatoes, such as those used in Hunt’s and Ro*Tel brands, alongside university students and faculty. ConAgra Foods also will continue its research on popcorn at the university; the company expects to harvest more than 100 million pounds of Nebraska-grown popcorn this year alone.

University of Nebraska President James B. Milliken, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman, Gov. Dave Heineman, Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler, and Al Bolles, vice president for research, quality and innovation at ConAgra Foods, were among the dignitaries who spoke during today’s celebration.

A culture of innovation

The collaboration with ConAgra Foods will foster a culture of innovation related to food science – aligning well with Innovation Campus’ theme of “food, fuel and water,” areas that represent strengths for the university and priorities for Nebraska. ConAgra Foods has worked with UNL for several years in food science research, and the new level of collaboration will create additional educational and development opportunities for students in critical areas such as food safety, microbiology, and robotics and their application in food commercialization.

“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. “We look forward to working with our collaborators at ConAgra Foods to address this significant challenge facing Nebraska and the world.”

Milliken added, “One of the reasons we are able to celebrate our first private tenant at Innovation Campus is the bold investment the state of Nebraska made in this initiative. That investment provided a critical jump-start to Innovation Campus that is already being leveraged with significant private-sector development. I want to thank Governor Heineman and members of the Legislature for their support for Innovation Campus, which will create jobs, advance research, and recruit and retain talent to benefit all Nebraskans.”

‘New possibilities’

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman said ConAgra Foods is a perfect collaborator for Innovation Campus given the priorities of the initiative.

“The modern economy is based on innovation, and we know that many private-sector companies involved in agriculture, technology and other fields want to locate adjacent to or on a university campus where they can collaborate with university scientists and engage university students,” Perlman said. “Nebraska Innovation Campus enhances opportunities for private businesses to access faculty research in the development of marketable innovations.

“With this announcement today of our collaboration with ConAgra Foods, we celebrate breaking new ground for the future, we celebrate the beginning of construction at Nebraska Innovation Campus, and the beginning of new possibilities for our university, our private partners, our students, and our state.”

Innovation Campus is a 249-acre, public-private research and development initiative based in Lincoln on the former grounds of the Nebraska State Fair. The grounds were transferred to UNL on Jan. 1, 2010.

In 2011, Gov. Heineman and the Legislature approved a $25 million state investment in Innovation Campus that is supporting renovation of the historic 4-H Building and construction of a new life sciences research center. Additionally, “phase I” of development at Innovation Campus, representing $80 million in public and private investments, includes laboratory, greenhouse, conference and office space. Woodbury Corp. and Scott Woodbury Wiegert are the private investors for phase I.

Ultimately, Innovation Campus will house as many as 7,000 people working in a collaborative environment that provides 2 million square feet of research and development space.

A model for success

“For ConAgra Foods to be the first major partner at Nebraska Innovation Campus is a rare opportunity that we could not pass up,” said Gary Rodkin, CEO of ConAgra Foods. “The expertise in food science at UNL, when combined with the expertise of ConAgra Foods, represents valuable potential in our ongoing momentum in the area of product innovation.”

Bolles said, “We’re enthusiastic about this announcement, which really represents an extension of the relationship we’ve been fostering with the university for several years. This is our first step toward exploring additional opportunities to expand a relationship that we hope will serve as the model for successful collaboration between the private sector and public universities.”

Gov. Heineman said, “This is one of Nebraska’s most ambitious and most significant projects. We want to grow and attract new, technology-focused companies to our state. Innovation Campus represents an important opportunity for the University of Nebraska to leverage its research talent to fuel new economic growth. Accelerating the development of Innovation Campus is a critical part of our vision for Nebraska’s future.”

Nebraska Innovation Campus Executive Director Dan Duncan said ConAgra Foods is the perfect first collaborator.

“Food is a major focus in our research, and ConAgra’s collaboration will provide our faculty and students with expanded opportunities,” Duncan said. “I’m excited that our first corporate announcement is with a company based in Nebraska and to see the future unfold with ConAgra as a partner.”

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