Critical Conversations with Scott T. Hamilton featuring North Carolina Food Innovation Lab Executive Director Bill Aimutis

Critical Conversations with Scott T. Hamilton featuring North Carolina Food Innovation Lab Executive Director Bill Aimutis

June 13, 2024

Recently, Golden LEAF President, Chief Executive Officer Scott T. Hamilton sat down with North Carolina Food Innovation Lab Executive Director Bill Aimutis via Zoom and filmed an episode of Critical Conversations. In this series, Scott talks with professionals about economic development issues affecting the state.

The NC Food Innovation Lab is 16,000 square feet of cutting-edge research and development space, and the nation’s only facility with current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) capabilities dedicated to supporting plant-based food innovators. The NC Food Innovation Lab offers the latest in food processing equipment, expert food scientists and partners from across the state to help food companies and entrepreneurs get their products to market quickly and effectively. The NC Food Innovation Lab brings food innovation ideas to market through product research and development, pilot plant production, training and workshops, and food industry consulting.

Aimutis has led the NC Food Innovation Lab since 2018 and is one of the most experienced food scientists in the country. He has held several research and operations leadership and management positions for companies such as Cargill, Inc., Land O’Lakes and Kerry Ingredients. Bill has a Bachelor of Science degree in Food Science at Purdue University and graduate degrees from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He has had several distinguished fellowships and serves on many industry advisory committees.

The NC Food Innovation Lab was funded in 2017 by $2.2 million in funding from the Golden LEAF Foundation Board of Directors for equipment for a pilot plant capable of transforming agricultural raw materials into value-added products for testing and markets and the General Assembly.

North Carolina is number one in agriculture and agribusiness. The vision of the NC Food Innovation Lab was for it to be an economic development arm to put North Carolina raw agriculture products into food production. This would include opportunities for new and existing companies to use North Carolina crops, said Aimutis. He added that it really created a collaborative effort between farmers, academic scientists, entrepreneurs, and product developers to accelerate food development of plant-based foods.

Aimutis said that the NC Food Innovation Lab works with both North Carolina and international companies on product development and product improvement. He said that because the pilot plant is so well-equipped, clients use the facility to scale up new products, test a formula they want to scale up to production, or learn what they need in a larger manufacturing environment. Aimutis added that the lab has between two to four customers per day that work with professional food scientists and nutritionists with years of experience who are experts in the field.

The Food Innovation Lab works with the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina (EDPNC) to recruit food businesses, said Aimutis. They not only work with plant-based facilities but also baking and protein manufacturers. Part of the recruitment process includes a tour of the facility or a presentation on how they work with businesses.

Aimutis added that some of the biggest challenges are a limited supply chain. He added that although North Carolina has a diverse number of crops they grow, if a business wants to just capitalize on one crop the supply can become limited. He also added that infrastructure improvements throughout the state such as high speed internet, natural gas, and roads are sometimes a deterrent. Aimutis said that alternatively, some of the biggest opportunities are with our workforce development, which is far superior to most other states in the country. He also added another huge opportunity is with sustainable or alternative meats. These manufacturers choose North Carolin because of our superior workforce development programs, raw materials, deep roots to supporting agriculture in the state, and because the Research Triangle Park has the agriculture technology and the food technology expertise. He added that these are highly specialized ingredients that only a very specialized workforce can handle.

To learn more about the North Carolina Food Innovation Lab, visit ncfoodinnovationlab.org.

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