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Growing industry: UI, partners seek $70 million grant to promote ag tech

CHAMPAIGN — Local and regional partners are working on a federal grant application to help promote biomanufacturing in Champaign, Macon and Piatt counties.

The Illinois Fermentation and Agriculture Biomanufacturing consortium is one of 31 organizations designated as a tech hub by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration in October, qualifying it to apply for implementation funding.

“The tech hub was a really exciting achievement for us, something we’ve been working to build momentum behind for years,” said Carly McCrory-McKay, executive director of the Champaign County Economic Development Corp. and part of iFAB’s leadership. “That’s a sign from the federal government that’s essentially a stamp of approval … because their purpose is that these tech hubs can become the global leaders in that particular space within the next decade.”

IFAB is a consortium of about 30 members, with the UI’s Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory as the lead applicant, she said. The group includes, but is not limited to, higher-education partners, economic development corporations, industry partners and units of government.

Champaign County, the city of Champaign, the city of Decatur, Macon County, Piatt County and the state of Illinois are all involved.

According to a description from the federal economic development agency, iFAB “seeks to scale precision fermentation to convert underutilized corn feedstocks into high-value, customized alternative proteins, food ingredients, materials, chemicals and more.”

“The iFAB Tech Hub … will increase domestic biomanufacturing through the development and deployment of capacity and equipment for biomanufacturing innovators while also training a skilled workforce,” officials said in a release.

According to a release from the UI’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, the precision fermentation industry “is projected to reach $11.8 billion by 2028, with the potential to generate one million jobs by 2030.”

The announcement of the 31 tech hubs marked the first phase of the program, which federal agency officials describe as “an economic development initiative designed to drive regional innovation and job creation by strengthening a region’s capacity to manufacture, commercialize, and deploy technology that will advance American competitiveness.”

IFAB and the other tech hubs can apply to receive implementation grant funding, with applications due Feb. 29.

“We’re asking for $70 million for different component projects to really scale bioprocessing and fermentation here in our community, but even beyond the EDA application that’s due at the end of February, the iFAB Tech Hub as a whole is continuing to seek other sources of funding to be able to accomplish and do the things that we need to do,” McCrory-McKay said. “A lot of that centers around building additional infrastructure for demonstration-scale facilities.”

At present, there is a “bottleneck” in the industry due to a lack of fermentation infrastructure in the U.S., she said. IFAB leaders seek to build out more mid-level facilities to address this and hope to use part of the $70 million for this purpose.

“When the middle gets built, we want that to happen here in our community,” she said.

According to Beth Conerty, associate director of business development at the UI’s bioprocessing research lab and regional innovation officer at iFAB, the grant application features seven different projects. These include:

  • Four construction projects “to build facilities that can help companies get from an idea all the way up through manufacturing readiness.” Two of these would take place on the UI campus, and two would take place in Decatur in collaboration with private industry partners.
  • A “hub of management” to ensure iFAB’s various projects and efforts are aligned and in communication.
  • A workforce development project led by Parkland College in collaboration with Richland Community College, regional planning commissions for both communities, the Illinois Agri-Food Alliance and four labor unions.
  • Entrepreneurship programming to support small companies that want to stay in the area.

Conerty said she feels optimistic about their chances of receiving funding.

“I think that we’re really strategically positioned,” she said. “This is not just a University of Illinois-led application; we have very strong involvement with major industry partners here in central Illinois. We’ve gotten very good feedback that … the industry we’re tackling and the technology we’re tackling would employ people of all sorts of backgrounds and skillsets and at all different levels. And that diversity of opportunity is really working in favor for our hub.”