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Minnesota food innovators, entrepreneurs and students to gain in proposed expansion

The Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) has announced intentions to upgrade its Marshall facility to include a food sensory laboratory, developmental kitchen, analytical services and improved communication abilities. Technical experts meeting with Senate Capital Investment Committee members at Southwest Minnesota State University this week said that, if approved, updates to laboratories and equipment would allow AURI to reach the next level of service innovation and functionality for Minnesota’s food entrepreneurs.

AURI serves businesses and processors at various stages of company growth and product development. The organization served more than 200 food-related enterprises in recent years with such needs as recipe review and reformulation, nutritional labeling, food safety and regulatory guidance, among others. The majority are looking to scale-up production to take their company from a small operation to a retail setting.

“Demand for these services has grown at a rapid pace. In the past year, alone, AURI has experienced a 25 percent increase in food client work. Right now, we have 50 such projects underway. Adequately updating and improving facilities to serve this sector is crucial to meet emerging industry needs,” observed AURI Executive Director Shannon Schlecht.

Many of AURI’s food-related services depend upon dedicated laboratories to fine-tune product development and processes. Clients also rely upon the organization’s analytical laboratory and information technology capacity.

Specific improvements in a new sensory lab and kitchen will enhance AURI’s ability to support small business development opportunities. These upgrades will help in the development of innovative new uses as well as in providing objective feedback through the entire product development phase. Additionally, AURI’s clients increasingly request analytical laboratory support during the product development phase with respect to nutrition information and shelf-life guidance.

As important as it is to provide these services, sharing information quickly and effectively is also a priority. AURI’s food clients, industry thought leaders and stakeholders are geographically diverse, prompting demand for web-based programming such as video/webinar capabilities, multi-location interaction, archiving content and continuing education. The proposed communications upgrade will allow clients to view demonstrations and interact with presenters in real time, or view archived information when it’s more convenient.

The AURI partnership with Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU) spans over two decades. If approved, these additions will also benefit SMSU’s new Culinology and Hospitality Management program, allowing students within the program to gain real-world experience. Through the support and expertise of AURI, SMSU students already gain hands-on experience within meat and food science as well as analytical analyses. The proposed sensory lab will support at least six different classes within the culinology curriculum and complement student internship projects.

“We are committed to embracing academic excellence, student-centered learning, community engagement and meaningful partnerships,” said Dr. Connie J. Gores, President of SMSU. “The proposed project is a perfect example of achieving both economic impact and learning opportunities through collaboration and innovation.”

According to Executive Director Schlecht, AURI values its long-standing partnership with SMSU and the legislature to create new opportunities for Minnesota’s agricultural commodities through increased business opportunities. If realized, the intended upgrades in Marshall will help meet emerging industry needs and enhance AURI’s ability to make Minnesota ideas a reality.