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Food Innovation Center launched at Rutgers University

by Tad Thompson | November 11, 2008
BRIDGETON, NJ -- A new, modern Rutgers Food Innovation Center was inaugurated Oct. 17 in a food industry park, here. Roughly 200 people attended an opening ceremony, facility tour and a buffet made with the products of the center's food clients. The facility is a Rutgers University New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station.

According to Louis Cooperhouse, director of the Food Innovation Center, the new facility serves any food industry company, including growers, needing help to develop new product ideas. The facility was partly funded by federal grants and is available for use by any company in the country. He said that FIC clients include retailers and foodservice operators that are identifying and creating new products.

The office of the Food Innovation Center began operations in 2001 and has since assisted 1,000 food businesses and entrepreneurs in developing new business concepts, Mr. Cooperhouse said. The center was named Incubator of the Year by the National Business Incubation Association in 2007. The center has planned for this new facility, which is "a critically needed new phase" since 2001, he said, adding that the new facility will begin commercial operations in November.

Among the 18 speakers heard beore the ribbon cutting was Tom Sheppard, a partner in Sheppard Farms Inc. in nearby Cedarville, NJ. Sheppard Farms worked with the center to develop packaging, packaging verbiage and best- techniques for a microwavable fresh asparagus.

This Food Innovation Center incubator facility "houses shared-use food- processing space for a broad array of products and processes, marketing capabilities and technical laboratories, distance learning and educational programming," according to Rutgers. "The business incubator facility enables new companies to be formed, and provides a vast array of resources and technologies to existing food companies as well. This facility is designed for use by farmers and cooperatives, start-up food companies, existing small and mid-sized food companies, and retail and foodservice establishments," which receive FIC staffing assistance from "concept to commercialization" on new business ideas.

The facility, which includes a market research focus group room, has new product prototypes tested, evaluated and produced in a state-of-the-art food processing facility. The building meets the regulatory standards of local, state and federal agencies.

Rutgers noted that a "full spectrum of processors can benefit -- from fledgling startups in need of basic small-scale processing capacity to sophisticated businesses in need of pilot or test-market processing for the development of new products. The small operator gains access to equipment and services [it] could not likely afford to develop or buy on [its] own. Larger processors are able to minimize their capital risks associated with new products and processes in test-market, scale-up or commercialization phases."

Margaret Brennan, director of economic development for the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station and a founder of the center, indicated in background information that "approximately 90 percent of the construction funding for the FIC incubator facility originated from outside of the university, which illustrates the tremendous support that the FIC has received from our partners."

Construction and operations funding for the center originated from these federal, state and local agencies: the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, the U.S. Economic Development Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state of New Jersey, the New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, the New Jersey Commission on Science & Technology, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, the Cumberland [County] Empowerment Zone and the city of Bridgeton.

The 23,000-square-foot facility was entirely funded by grants, so it has no debt. Its operational costs will be entirely funded by fees that food companies pay to use the facility to develop new business ideas in the food industry. The facility is in the heart of New Jersey's fresh produce-growing area. U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), one of 18 speakers prior the ribbon- cutting event, said that the center "will keep the garden in the Garden State."

U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) from the state's second district offered another catchy line: "'Joe the Plumber' is going to switch to farming and move to south Jersey" because of the positive influence of agriculture in New Jersey. New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Charles Kuperus credited Rutgers for being "the point of the arrow leading the way with food technology."

He added that the center "shortens the chain between the producer and consumer" and helps New Jersey growers make foods shelf-stable for those many months a year that they cannot ship their fresh products.