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Investing in Future Innovation

By Dan Lemke

It’s difficult to keep up with changing times, much less be cutting edge, when some of the tools necessary to be innovative are outdated.

The Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) was founded by the state of Minnesota in the 1980s to help develop new and innovative uses for the state’s diverse agricultural products. The state’s investment in AURI established a unique resource for providing producers, entrepreneurs and existing entities with technical and industry support to help their ventures succeed. Some of the tools AURI uses to help hundreds of Minnesota businesses and entrepreneurs add value to Minnesota ag products have been in place since the organization was formed.

“AURI is a 30 plus-year-old organization and having modern scientific equipment is vital to fulfill our mission,” said AURI Executive Director Shannon Schlecht. “Each year, AURI allocates a portion of its regular budget to capital investments, including laboratory equipment for vital needs to service Minnesota businesses and drive impact for the agricultural economy. However, some equipment needs are higher in cost and are difficult to work into an annual budget.”

“We still had some equipment in our laboratories that was coming out of the 1990s and we were struggling to find parts when it needed repair,” added Dan Skogen, recently retired AURI director of government relations.

Seeking Support
In addition to its annual appropriation from the State of Minnesota, AURI brought a special request to the legislature during the 2023 session. The request was for one-time funds to upgrade equipment at the AURI facilities in Marshall, Waseca and Crookson. The equipment was aging while demand for practical and analytical information from AURI clients was increasing. The request also included equipment to enhance capabilities in newer areas such as biogas production.

Skogen said both the Minnesota House and Senate agriculture committees held hearings about AURI’s request.

“We were heard in both committees,” Skogen said, “and both were very supportive.”

The legislature was supportive of the additional investment request. While lawmakers didn’t fund AURI’s total request, the Legislature did provide one-time funding to upgrade AURI facilities with supplemental one-time funds of $1.8 million.

Schlecht says AURI works very hard to show the organization’s positive impact to the state’s economy and agriculture industry and that the organization is driving impact and opportunity across both Greater Minnesota and in the metro area. He says legislators and stakeholders agreed about the value AURI provides across multiple fronts, which helped the organization realize the legislature’s support. “The state has been an invaluable partner to AURI since its inception in the 1980s,” Schlecht explained. “AURI is required to maintain facilities as part of our founding statute, so this support is vital to helping us fulfill the state’s goals for AURI and to achieve our mission of conducting onsite and applied research, promoting the establishment of new products and product uses and the expansion of existing markets for the state’s agricultural commodities and products.”

Ahead of the Curve
Senior Director of Business Development and Commercialization Jennifer Wagner-Lahr said the additional investment by the State into AURI will help the organization retool to meet the growing needs of the food and agriculture industry.

“We see a lot of interest in things like nutrient recovery, a lot of interest in even more detailed analyses from our chemistry lab, and we can’t provide those services without having an investment in new pieces of equipment,” Wagner-Lahr said. “AURI always views itself as providing complementary services from both the business development perspective as well as the technical perspective.”

Wagner-Lahr said that as AURI’s business development team worked with clients across the state, it became evident that the need for technical assistance in many areas was increasing. The only way to fulfill the needs was to upgrade or expand the technical capacity offered by the organization.

“We’re slowly advancing our capability to keep up with the times and to bridge the gap between academic research and commercial implementation,” said AURI Senior Director of Science and Technology Dr. Luca Zullo.

Zullo said AURI creates a link between benchtop research and commercialization by focusing on applied research.

“We were lacking sufficient capability to continue doing that,” Zullo explained. “Areas like mass spectroscopy and so on are becoming increasingly important outside of the research lab to support commercial development. As sophisticated technology becomes more mainstream, we need to be a bit ahead of the curve.”

Growing Areas of Interest
Wagner-Lahr said that additional characterization of food products is among the areas of growing need.

“We’re getting a lot of interest from food clients who really need to understand the nutrients in their products, whether they can make food health nexus claims is an area that’s really picking up steam with consumers,” Wagner-Lahr said. “We’ll be able to conduct additional analyses and provide information for industry entities to use in that regard.”

Wagner-Lahr said food-health is an example of how AURI is working to change with the times to provide relevant information to businesses and entrepreneurs. She said some of the information companies want, AURI couldn’t previously provide. And in some cases, AURI staff is working with entirely new crops.

“A lot has changed in 30 years,” Wagner-Lahr said, “and our labs need to reflect what’s happening in the real world.”

Biogas production is another area of opportunity for Minnesota. The Minnesota Natural Gas Innovation Act established a regulatory framework enabling Minnesota’s natural gas utilities to provide customers with access to renewable energy resources and innovative technologies while reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Renewable gas is produced by recycling biogas from organic materials such as agricultural manure, wastewater and commercial food waste. A study by the American Biogas Council found that Minnesota has the potential to be the eighth largest producer of renewable natural gas in the country.

Wagner-Lahr said a lot of developers are having conversations with dairy farmers and food processors that are generating waste that could go into anaerobic digestion systems.

“If Minnesota has the potential to be the eighth largest biogas producer in the country, we want to make sure that these projects are successful whether you’re talking about the suppliers of the waste product, farmers or food processors, the developers who want to invest in these facilities, or the local governments that are approving them,” Wagner-Lahr explained. “We want these projects to be successful. We can help shepherd projects along because we don’t want them to be failures.”

Strong Signal
Schlecht said the State’s support signals that AURI continues to be relevant to both rural and metro constituents by working with a wide range of business entities, stakeholder organizations and other partners in a collaborative and impactful manner. He said the returns AURI delivered in helping drive new sales, spurring capital investment and creating/retaining jobs show great leverage to the dollars invested in the organization.

“We are a unique asset to driving value-added impacts and I believe more and more decision makers are realizing the role we play to support innovation and impactful outcomes,” Schlecht said. “For AURI to stay relevant in driving innovations forward, it needs modern capabilities to support businesses and innovators. A few opportunity areas are arising where AURI did not have the equipment necessary to deliver the impact needed, and I believe this investment in AURI will drive even greater investment in new opportunity areas that could deliver even more impact to the state and agriculture industry.”

“This investment keeps us relevant and keeps us moving at the speed of business,” Skogen said. “It adds some muscle to the work that AURI can do with entrepreneurs who are looking for a quick turnaround as well as an inexpensive way to get answers they need. Any investment the legislature makes in AURI is an investment that benefits the state’s agricultural industry and its entrepreneurial innovators.”