Nebraska Innovation Campus, Again

July, 2015

Lincoln -- Many years ago (four decades, in fact) I was employed by the State of Nebraska to review state agency budgets and give my recommendations for changes to the governor and the legislature. Sometimes my recommendations were accepted, sometimes not. I started out on smaller agencies; later I was assigned larger ones, including the University of Nebraska.

If I were still making such recommendations, I'd likely recommend more state taxpayer investment in the Nebraska Innovation Campus. It needs to succeed. Granted, this could mean throwing good money after bad. Since I last wrote on the NIC, its troubles have been documented by local reporters and watchdogs. Indeed, the university does not have a great track record in these ventures. Witness the ill-fated technology park in northwest Lincoln, for example. There is an unfortunate history at the university of me-tooism, about chasing fads like technology parks. I remember UNO's downtown education center, modeled after a self-supporting example in San Francisco. State government offices eventually moved in to bail UNO out.

So there is much to overcome in making a recommendation for more tax support. The 2015 state legislature apparently felt so as well: it denied the university's request for an additional $25 million of tax money for NIC, but told the university to come up with a plan for NIC success before next year; then it would take another look. Fair enough.

NIC's thrust is to innovate in food, fuel, and water. NIC success would be more likely, I believe, if university leaders were more inclined to look around at rapid changes in these areas, especially food, and adapt to them. Not so long ago, the university boasted of creating the technology behind McDonalds' McRib sandwich. But now, if anyone has noticed, McDonalds is closing outlets all over the world. Replacing McDonalds are Chipotles and Paneras, where the emphasis is on fresh and healthy food. Chipotle, like many other food providers including Walmart and Whole Foods, is searching for suppliers for its wares. Nebraska is not much in the hunt, as many of its products are not what these food companies want. (Although there was an uptick in milo acres planted when the price of milo this spring surpassed that of corn.) Are we in Nebraska sufficiently taking note of the demand for healthier foods to address the nation's obesity and diabetes epidemics, which are not going away? How about noting the farm-to-table organic food movement, which is increasing demand for foods free of antibiotics and pesticides?

So far, NIC has thrown in its lot with ConAgra, a trailing-edge rather than leading-edge food processing company. It was not always so; once ConAgra CEO Mike Harper was so dominant he acted as though he controlled state and local governments, demanding and getting whatever he wanted, from state tax subsidies to permits to raze Omaha's jobbers' canyon. But now ConAgra is in trouble because of changing consumer demands. The consumer juggernaut is formidable. Witness how changing consumer demand settled the fight over hog gestation crates. Witness how seed monopolies like Monsanto are seeking protection in Congress from consumer food-labeling advocates. Is NIC paying attention to how rapidly the food world is changing?

The legislature should signal NIC that it would welcome a plan in which NIC becomes a crucible where old food and new food approaches come together to grapple with emerging health and food security issues and products. In the plan, NIC would be the place to be when it comes to food and water, as Silicon Valley has been to computer software. NIC is already well-positioned in regard to the water component, what with the conscience-money donation of $50 million from center-pivot mogul Robert Daugherty. NIC could go on recruiting old line corporations, not as part of a rear-guard, twilight struggle against consumer demand for healthy food, but corporations newly ready to engage with the changing nutrition and food security needs of our time. Simultaneously, NIC must open its doors, its spaces, and its labs and greenhouses to non-profits, food cooperatives, organic researchers and producers, pollinator protection organizations, sustainable agriculture practitioners, consumer advocates, nutrition publishers, and especially health care organizations dedicated to addressing and reversing the dietary deficiencies that have resulted in the precariousness of our health indicators, and an outright world epidemic in the case of diabetes.

Such a plan could be worth another $25 million of tax support. A vibrant NIC might even draw federal research agencies back onto the campus, as was originally conceived. Let's see a plan to justify it.