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Science Of Innovation

Innovation = ideas + implementation.

That’s the formula AURI scientific and project development staff use to give a new ag product or production process its best shot at success.

Innovation isn’t luck, it’s a science.

“You can’t just have an idea, you have to get it all the way to the marketplace,” says Teresa Spaeth, AURI executive director.

“We take innovation seriously. We think about it and study what creates success and try to replicate it. We build our programs on that, so we can be a true R&D (research and development) arm for agriprocessors,” says Spaeth, who has conducted extensive literature reviews on the predictors of innovation success.

Success recipe

Identifying an opportunity “is important, but not everyone gets it right,” Spaeth says. “Just because your neighbor says he would buy one does not mean it is feasible. One of the most important functions we provide is feasibility studies.”

Success also requires the right combination of “implicit” knowledge, based on experience, and academic knowledge, based on research and testing, Spaeth says.

“The number one predictor of success is how well an entrepreneur plugs into a network,” Spaeth says. “We do our best to link entrepreneurs to the best resources possible … plugging into the right professional network for assistance, mentorship and development.”

“Partnerships are important for ensuring that clients have the resources they need to support their entire business structure,” says Kate Paris, AURI planning and project director.

“It takes more than just a wonderful new product or process to make an innovation accepted in the marketplace. Many inventors immediately seek capital, but may not have the business or marketing savvy to successfully commercialize their idea.”

Research shows innovators also need “dynamic capabilities — taking current resources and connecting them to make something new,” Spaeth says. “It’s the ability to constantly reshuffle the deck.”

Although technology has changed, “basically, the resources of the world have not changed. Advances come from reconfiguring (resources) and finding new uses.”

AURI expertise

AURI’s talent pool includes animal and food scientists, chemists, a plant pathologist and staff with business development expertise. And they can connect clients to experts outside of AURI’s staff, such as chemical and mechanical engineers or marketing specialists.

While there are many areas of innovations, AURI concentrates on food processing, renewable energy, biobased products and uses for ag waste and coproducts. “In every one of those areas, we’re stretched to keep up with all the innovations that are going on,” says Doug Root, AURI chemist.

AURI facilities include food product and fermentation/chemistry labs in Crookson, fat/oils and meat labs in Marshall and a coproducts lab in Waseca. By locating labs in rural areas, AURI is promoting business development in Greater Minnesota.

“You don’t know what it’s like to combine, until you’ve sat in the combine,” Spaeth says. “Our scientists live in rural communities” and know the issues rural businesses and processors face. “It’s an understanding of what it’s like to walk in those shoes.”

“Our purpose is to be the R&D arms of small to medium ag processors. They are in rural Minnesota so we need to be in rural Minnesota.”

Innovations solving problems

Root says success is “starting with the idea that there is some problem and turning it into opportunity.”

The process of bringing an innovation to commercialization can take years — formulating, testing, analyzing, reformulating, business planning, decision making, market researching, financing — and not necessarily in that order. But the payoff is often well worth the time and money invested.

In 2004, USA Solutions of St. Joseph, Minn. asked AURI for assistance developing a biodegradable livestock mat to replace rubber mats, “which can create disease issues,” says scientist Al Doering, head of AURI’s coproducts lab in Waseca.

AURI evaluated a variety of ag-based fibers for rigidity, durability and other traits and “conducted sorbency and flammability trials utilizing scientific standards.”

The mat is now on the market, used by large swine facilities, and “all the material is being sourced from Minnesota,” Doering says. A new Minnesota business was developed, which “played a big role in maintaining jobs in a northeast Minnesota community that is producing the mat.”

While food clients are usually knowledgeable about developing a good product, they may not have resources to do nutritional analysis or scale up a recipe for commercial markets. For example, nutritionist Teri Rose developed an organic meal replacement bar but wanted to improve its taste and shelf-life. (see story, page 12)

She sought help from AURI scientist Charan Wadhawan “with these objectives in mind: nutrient profile, satiety, support blood glucose control and heart health, and rich in omega 3 fatty acids and lignin,” Wadhawan says.

After they upgraded the bar, Wadhawan tested it for nutrients, shelf-life and taste.

AURI scientist Ed Wene did a microbial analysis to ensure the bar’s safety as it’s made without additives or preservatives. The “Perfectly Produce” bars “fit in with current health trends,” Wadhawan says.

AURI can help inexperienced entrepreneurs through a maze of regulatory issues, including rigorous food safety requirements. “If a great product doesn’t get marketed, it could be because of a regulatory slip-up,” Root says.

Eye to the future

Recently AURI developed Innovation Launching Pads to reach groups of innovators with emerging technologies and research findings.

Launching Pad events bring together people with specific industry interests such as dryer technologies, food product development, ag processing and renewable energy.

For example, AURI’s Renewable Energy Roundtable, launched in 2006, brings together researchers, business leaders, policymakers and agricultural groups four times a year to confer on advancing the state’s alternative energy industry. The Roundtable spawned working committees focused on research, public policy, infrastructure, economics and financing, and talent development.

“For years, AURI has been working with the agricultural industry to implement innovative ideas through broad-based research and initiatives,” Spaeth says.

“The Launching Pads provide a platform for feeding research into communities of innovation and helping them implement the research with action plans.”