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Thoughts on the Ag Lab

I gave an interview to the 21st show on Tuesday, and I was prepared to talk about the economic impact that the Ag Lab has on Greater Peoria, which I lay out below. But first, host of the show Niala Boodhoo asked about the mood of people around here, and framed it by mentioning the Cat HQ move and the timing of this news.

If you listened to the interview, you’ll clearly hear that I wasn’t prepared to answer that, and here’s why – the culture of our team at Greater Peoria EDC is such that we view every seemingly earth-shattering revelation as an opportunity. Sure, we have our days, but we are charged with working to find collective solutions and are empowered by our CEO and Board of Directors to do so. We try not to dwell. Finding solutions is complex, and it takes a lot of work.

On the threat of the closure of the Ag Lab

At present, the conversation seems to be around job loss and a general woe is me narrative. If the Ag Lab were to go, over 200 USDA research jobs paying $27 million in annual wages would go with it. There are additional 30 contracted staff – skilled and unskilled – that would also go. Those people live, work, and play in Greater Peoria. They buy houses and cars, their kids go to public and private schools here, they buy groceries, patronize restaurants, etc., etc. (The reader understands.)

The building itself and the nature of the activities going on inside of it demands ongoing maintenance, the contracts for which are worth millions and would be lost by local contractors.

So, yes, if the Ag Lab closes, we’ll feel it. But job loss is only part of the story.

On the economic impact of the Ag Lab

The Journal Star recently quoted Congresswoman Bustos on the number of ongoing research projects that the Ag Lab has with private entities, the costs of which are offset by those private entities. During my interview I gave two examples – Illinois Valley Plastics and zuChem.

Illinois Valley Plastics engages in cooperative research with the Ag Lab on the development of new polymers. IVP is a supplier to our manufacturers, so those polymers which prove to be ready for the world are introduced to the marketplace as new products. There’s another name for this – innovation.

zuChem was born out of a specific effort to commercialize a synthetic sugar called Xylitol, which actually has oral health benefits. zuChem is working on ways to produce Xylitol affordably at scale. If they can figure out how to do this, then the chewing gum and toothpaste industries are doomed!

Super Slurper

A technology I was looking forward to talking about during the interview (but didn’t) is “Super Slurper”. If the name hits the reader’s eye a little harshly, the reader will be glad to know that its inventor, Dr. William Doane, hated it too. Normally, I’d insert an inline hypertext link like this, but the title of this 1977 People magazine article is too good not to transcribe:

‘Super Slurper’ Is the Thirsty Compound That Can Drink a Soggy Cellar Dry

The reader should let that soak in for a minute…

Scientists at the Ag Lab discovered saponified starch-graft polyacrylonitrile copolymers in 1973. The name didn’t exactly stick, so someone in the Information Office dubbed it “Super Slurper” and its commercial applications began to manifest, perhaps most notably as the absorption material in disposable diapers. But disposable diaper companies didn’t utilize this technology in the United States until 1982. Read more about the Super Slurper story here and here.

On a culture of innovation

I subscribe to McKinsey’s definition of innovation:

Innovation = Creativity + Delivery

Scientists at the Ag Lab are creating new knowledge, constantly discovering new uses for agricultural commodities, which is a fancy phrase for things we grow a lot of in the United States. Scientists at the Ag Lab have the unique capacity to create. The delivery part of that equation is left to entrepreneurs, investors, risk-taking corporations, and other forward-thinking institutions.

The advent of the disposable diaper is a perfect example of creativity plus delivery. We need more, not less of this.

On partnering with the Ag Lab

Ba-dee ba-dee ba-dee uh… project manager!

I choked on this sentence during the interview but what I was trying to say is that the Greater Peoria EDC is working on actionable strategies for transferring the technologies being developed at the Ag Lab into lasting value for the region, the state, and even the country.

One thing we are exploring is an opportunity for a project manager from our office to work closely with companies outside our region who partner with Ag Lab researchers to set up satellite offices in Greater Peoria, in order to streamline operations. As a multi-modal transportation hub with a concentration of manufacturing and logistics industry expertise, Greater Peoria is very good at producing things and moving them all over the world.

Where Startup GP enters the picture

A second thing is, of course, startups. In addition to zuChem, which was developed into a startup company by an entrepreneur from Chicago and local investors, there is a startup company that’s working on revolutionizing the textile industry with IP that can be traced back to the Ag Lab.

As Director of Startup GP, my opportunity lies squarely in this space. I’m concerned with increasing the number of commercialization attempts and shortening the time it takes for a technology to be commercialized. I have a few ideas on how to do that, but even something as simple as acting as a translator between research teams and investor groups could be profound. After all, the name Super Slurper, despite its grossness, apparently resonates with the layman or laywoman investor much more deeply than saponified starch-graft polyacrylonitrile copolymers does.

Thanks to the 21st Show

I’d like to close by thanking the 21st Show which I find valuable, host Niala Boodhoo, and the team of producers who extended the opportunity to talk about an important topic. Keep up the good work!

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