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NC Food Innovation Lab launches on NC Research Campus

KANNAPOLIS – Complete with state-of-the-art equipment and a goal of serving as a catalyst for the development of plant-based food, the N.C. Food Innovation Lab was launched Thursday with a celebratory ribbon-cutting and open house.

The 16,000-square-foot food processing and product development facility is on the 350-acre N.C. Research Campus. It represents almost an $11 million investment, said Bill Aimutis of the food lab.

The lab includes a wet processing area for plant material and water removal; a room for extrusion, milling and blending; an extraction room for plant-based raw materials; a drying room; product development lab; test kitchen; and collaboration studio.

The open house started with remarks from multiple North Carolina officials and those affiliated with the project.

“What a special day this is, and what a special facility this is,” N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said. “We’re going to be creating markets for farmers and will be creating jobs. I thank all of you for being here.”

The innovation lab operates under current good manufacturing practices, regulatory guidelines and strict food manufacturing safety practices.

Aimutis said the lab turns a vision into a reality — a world-class building where plant-based foods can be researched, developed and turned into commercial products.

“And also helping new companies establish new products in the marketplace, and then the second objective was to bring value to some of the fruits and vegetables we have here in North Carolina,” Aimutis said.

The space, Aimutis said, will be used by “just about anybody” interested in producing food products, with the one requirement that any company would be focused on plant-based products.

The lab will offer a range of customizable services that include product research and development, pilot plant production, training and workshops, and establishing food companies.

The facility was made possible through a partnership among a number of organizations that support North Carolina’s food manufacturing economy, including the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, N.C. State University, the N.C. Department of Commerce, the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina and the N.C. Research Campus.

Haley Burtch, Hawi Debilo and Miceala Hayes, graduate students with N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said they were excited about the ribbon-cutting.

“It was kind of cool to see people from the industry, legislature and professors. It’s awesome for us as students to see all of this come together,” Burtch said.

Ben Lepczyk said that through a partnership with the Food Innovation Lab, he is working to create a plant-based supplemental meal-replacement beverage for all ages.

“Me and my wife, Erika, came in with an idea to (Aimutis). He took us through the design process to get the creative juices flowing and to determine what kind of creative product we wanted to create,” Lepczyk said. “We are working right now on the branding and marketing strategy and the N.C. Food Innovation Lab is focused on product development.”

According to a news release from the food lab, North Carolina’s agriculture and agri-businesses account for $91.8 billion of the state’s annual gross domestic product.

“We are excited to have this facility open. We want to make the state of N.C. proud in what we’re doing here and we want to see economic growth as a result of this facility,” Aimutis said.

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