Skip to content

AURI’s New Uses Forum Explores Innovation and Investment in Food and Ag

The Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) hosted its annual New Uses Forum on April 11 in Minneapolis, MN. The daylong event featured lively discussions, expert analysis and networking opportunities. The theme for the event was Exploring the Intersection of Innovation and Investment in Food and Agriculture. Compeer Financial and Georgetown University’s Rural Opportunity Initiative were event partners.

“The New Uses Forum is about exploring innovation and investment and discussing how we can move things forward to benefit the industry as well as the state’s economy and the region’s ag industry,” said Shannon Schlecht, AURI’s Executive Director. “This event brings together a cross section of people. It is an opportunity to engage and talk about what is possible and how we can create the collaborations that are needed to get there.”

Scott Caine, President of Aimpoint Research, presented the keynote address. Caine has expertise in the areas of strategic operations, marketing research, competitive intelligence, organizational development and business modeling. Through custom intelligence solutions and research services, Caine and his Aimpoint Research team partner with a broad range of agribusinesses across the U.S.

The title of Caine’s presentation was “The Intersection of Business and Agriculture.” He shared some of his company’s research on the changes occurring in agriculture. He stated that the business model of agriculture is changing rapidly, and it is beholden upon producers to adapt. Farmers and producers that succeed in the future will be the ones that embrace innovation, as well as the wants and preferences of tomorrow’s consumers, Caine said. Agriculture will increasingly be about food.

Following the keynote address, there were multiple panel discussions on emerging topics in value-added agriculture. The first was on industrial fermentation, which included panelists Jill Zullo, Global Managing Director of BioIntermediates at Cargill BioIndustrial, LLC; Larry Fox, Attorney at Avisen Legal; Melanie Tomczak, Chief Technology Officer at BioMADE; Ron Meeusen, Managing Director at Cultivian Sandbox Venture Partners, LLC; Brian Brazeau, Partner at Ferment and moderator Jon Veldhouse, President and CEO of Qore LLC.

This panel discussed a range of topics related to how industrial fermentation using agricultural commodities and ag-derived coproducts as feedstocks could provide a sustainable alternative to fossil resource-based products. The panelists also debated how fermentation can create new market opportunities and impact agricultural producers by offering a new avenue for the sustainable economic development of rural communities.

Zullo was asked why industrial fermentation was one of the hot topics in agriculture right now. She said the science of fermentation is at a cross section of several driving factors that are shaping the global economy. Increasingly, consumers want to know more about the environmental impact of their food, clothing and other products. What they have found is that these products use a lot of petroleum that produces greenhouse gases, which leads to global warming. At the same time, governments are investing money in greener manufacturing and production for things like clothing and beauty products.

“Consumers are driving investors and large companies to have strong Environmental Sustainability and Governance programs. We have seen that sustainability is strong for business. We are also seeing a pent-up demand for more responsible goods and advancements in technology. When those two things collide, it drives further investment and creates a great space,” Zullo said.

The next panel was entitled “Driving Health Changes Through Food” with panelists Katherine Paris, Vice President of Advocacy and Policy at Untied Healthcare; Kevin Miller, Principal Scientist at General Mills; Mindy Kurzer, Director of the University of Minnesota’s Healthy Food, Healthy Lives Institute; Amanda Karls, Principal at Foodvocate LLC and moderator Kristin Duncanson, owner and partner of Highland Family Farms. The panel explored several issues and questions including the impact of processing on the healthfulness of food, the definition of healthy food, the role of nutrient density and how to best guide consumers toward healthier outcomes.

The panel also discussed how labeling certain foods as “healthy” often has unintended consequences, as well as how the current definition of the term “healthy” often does not consider issues like food access and cultural implications. Moreover, labeling a food healthy can also give consumers a false sense of security and lead to overeating. Rather than “healthy” or “unhealthy” labeling on food products, the panelists promoted a shift in thinking to healthy and unhealthy food patterns.

Miller at General Mills used the example of chocolate milk in school cafeterias. Though chocolate milk does have sugar, research shows that students are far more likely to drink chocolate than white milk. Giving students the option to drink chocolate milk in school is a far better health outcome than for students to drink no milk at all.

“My preference would be that the Food & Drug Administration does not define healthy, and the word healthy would not be on a [food] label because there are many different definitions of health, and certainly within different cultural communities that is true,” Kurzer said.

Kurzer teaches undergraduate students as part of her role at the University of Minnesota. She said many of her students come to class with unrealistic and often untrue ideas about food and nutrition. She shared some of the most common misunderstandings from her classroom. Kurzer said that despite ample evidence showing that gluten is only unhealthy for a small percentage of the population that suffers from Celiac disease, the misconception persists. Kurzer also said that for the most part, her students believe body weight is directly related to how healthy someone is. She would like to see larger adoption and recognition of the idea that people can be healthy at any weight.

The final panel explored how the global economy is affecting farmers and agricultural processors in the Upper Midwest. The discussion was moderated by Bridget Deering, Innovation Strategy Consultant at Compeer Financial; with panelists Bill Moore, Chief Risk Officer at Compeer Financial; Ryan Moe, Regional Director at StoneX Group Inc.; Blaine Nelson, Senior Economist at Farmer Mac; and David Fiocco, Partner at McKinsey & Company. In addition to their comments, the panel also polled the audience on the economic issues and questions that were at top of mind; the most common issues cited were inflation, a possible recession, interest rates and a lack of labor. Forty-five percent of attendees said they were confident in the U.S. economy, which was the most popular response.

One of the main takeaways from this panel was the overall strength of the U.S. agricultural economy. By and large, producers were aggressive in locking in low interest rates, and many have cash reserves available.

“This is a great year for farmers to make investments in their farms and in new technologies,” said Fiocco.

In addition to the panels and keynote discussions, Agricultural Innovations, LLC and the company’s High Island Organics fertilizer brand, was named AURI’s Ag Innovator of the Year (see pages 6-7 for a profile on the winners). The AURI Board of Directors bestows the Ag Innovator of the Year to a Minnesota company or entrepreneur making a substantial impact in the areas of product innovation, uniqueness and commercialization potential.

Based in Winthrop, Minn., Agricultural Innovations, LLC produces high-quality organic fertilizer products using chicken manure. The products are available at retailers throughout Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota. Brothers Adam and Michael Asmus have worked with AURI since 2017 on product formulation and the development of a pelleted fertilizer product.

“When we first met with the AURI team, we had a product that we knew was going to be useful, but the question, was how do we get it into consumer channels?” said Adam Asmus. “AURI was instrumental in solving that problem.”

This year’s New Uses Forum also played host to the 2023 Bold Open Reverse Pitch session. The Bold Open brought together eight forward-looking Minnesota food and agriculture companies to share innovative industry challenges in need of novel solutions from entrepreneurs, researchers and innovators. The challenges included:

• Help Us Upcycle 3 Million Pounds of Spent Coffee Grounds (Bizzy Coffee)

• Fast Decision Making for Small Agricultural Loans (Bremer Bank)

• Traceability in Row Crops (CHS Inc.)

• Ag Data Wrangling (Compeer Financial)

• Upcycled Food Ingredient Landscape (Hormel Foods)

• Scaling Innovation—Oilseed Crop Pressing, Workforce Training and New Uses (Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council)

• Identifying High-potential Strategies to Deploy Medically Tailored Foods as a Reimbursable Health/Medical/Insurance/Wellness Expense (Step One Foods)

• Recovery of Nutrients from Agricultural-Derived Waste Streams (AURI)

The participating organizations sought collaborators who could help accelerate innovative ideas into the marketplace. Entrepreneurs, businesses, researchers, innovators and others were encouraged to submit solutions to these challenges at the Bold Open website.

The New Uses Forum concluded with the Smash the Senses networking event. Eleven emerging Minnesota food companies, many of which were current or past clients of AURI showcased their latest food and beverage products.