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iFAB partners bring $680 million to support biomanufacturing in central Illinois


URBANA — Most people think of fermenting grains to make beer, but to the folks in the University of Illinois Integrated Bioprocessing Research Lab, it’s so much more than that.

“People probably wouldn’t think about fabrics, but there are companies who are using fermentation to make like polyester or nylon, because those are traditionally petroleum-derived chemicals,” said IBRL Associate Director of Business Development Beth Conerty.

“They’re trying to use a biological process to replace those petroleum processes.”

That’s not all: The precision fermentation process can also be used to create fuel, protein for meat alternatives, cosmetic ingredients and more.

As one of 31 partners in the Illinois Fermentation and Agriculture Biomanufacturing Hub, which was designated a Regional Innovation and Technology Hub last fall.

That designation allowed iFAB to apply for $70 million in funding from the U.S. Economic Development Administration last week which, iFAB leadership announced Monday, inspired partners to commit nearly $680 million “to realize our vision for Illinois to become the heart of biomanufacturing,” Conerty said.

This funding would support seven different projects which all aim to support the business of biomanufacturing, either by building facilities or by supporting and educating students and entrepreneurs.

State Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, said that the idea of pushing central Illinois as a leader in bioprocessing was something he and his peers were discussing in 2017 and former UI President Robert Easter was envisioning even earlier.

The pandemic derailed some of those conversations, but Rose said he’s happy to see so much funding going toward promoting bioprocessing because East Central Illinois has so many of the agricultural and technological resources needed to support the industry.

“There’s literally nowhere else on earth that has what we have to offer,” Rose said.

UI Chancellor Robert Jones also highlighted importance of ILDR and iFAB’s location when it comes to agriculture and biomanufacturing.

“We have all the components we need to prime a biomanufacturing economy within a 50-mile radius of where we are today,” Jones said.

“There really is no place in the world that can match what we have right here, right now in central Illinois.”

While iFAB and ILDR have been working in the fermentation and biomanufacturing spheres for a while, Conerty said the Regional Innovation and Technology Hub designation in October really brought all of the iFAB partners together.

“I just see it propelling that at a faster rate,” she said.

One of the seven initiatives supported by this funding involves a partnership between iFAB and two unions, Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 149 and the Decatur Building & Construction Trades Council, to train tradespeople to build the complex equipment and facilities needed to enable biomanufacturing.

DBCTC president Josh Sapp said funding will go into hiring recruitment staff, including an equity director, to bring more members into the union as well as supporting existing members.

“We will be able to expand the training of our existing members by investing in new training equipment and offering continuing education courses in the latest technologies,” Sapp said.