NC State Presses For $180M Plant Sciences Plan with Ag Industry

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SL: We’re projecting a cost for the entire initiative of around $180 million. It’s a big vision. But $162 million of that will be the building itself. The remainder will be for faculty, running it, and maintenance, and to seed projects. We hope to get as much as we can from the state through the state legislative building process. We’re working to get funding money for the building in the next legislative session. We also have a philanthropic entity in the state who is willing to provide a significant amount of funding for the building. We’re also going to fundraise. We also may have some leases for the corporate partners in the building.

X: Would there be industry contributions?

SL: Depending on how much money we receive from the state legislature.

X: Would that give a company particular preference or access to the facility?

SL: I suspect that there could be some strategic partnerships with some specific companies, should they be involved in helping build the building. That won’t be at the exclusion of other projects. They’ll be taking a portion of the capacity, for sure.

X: What is the process for building this new facility?

SL: We’re an entity of the state. There’s a mechanism for getting state-funded buildings. There’s a priority list. As far as the funding goes, you start with planning money, which is 10 percent of the cost of the building. We’re doing something different. Instead of going to the legislature and simply asking for the required 10 percent planning money, we are raising half of that—$9 million dollars. We’re doing that to really show to the state legislature that there is tremendous statewide stakeholder support for this effort, really show that the commodity groups, the growers, are behind us to the point where they are willing to put funding to it. We’ve already raised over $7 million of it, and we’ve got significant contributions from the major commodity groups in the state.

X: You’re calling this a plant sciences initiative. Is this only related to food crops? You’ve already talked about plant-based pharmaceutical manufacturing. Do other plant applications, such as biofuels, fit into this?

SL: Two thirds of the ag economy in North Carolina is from animal production. This is a plant sciences initiative. But [animal farmers] have great interest and they have great value out of this initiative, as well. The long term structural issue they have is sourcing food, grain, locally. One of the biggest costs is importing grain from the Midwest, or even from Brazil. Certainly, one of the major deliverables we hope to make is to figure out ways to grow more grain locally for animals.

As far as biofuels, it’s not a specific deliverable. But I can see a biofuels project being part of this. The economics of biofuels is very fluid. That really calls out for an interdisciplinary approach. In my opinion, when we do a systems approach to plant science there should always be an economist as part of the project. If we come up with a solution, is it just an academic solution or is it a real-world solution? That’s certainly true, probably more so, for biofuels. We might not go too far down a discovery road if it doesn’t make too much financial sense. At the end of the day, this initiative is more than just ivory tower creating more knowledge for the sake of new knowledge, it’s creating new knowledge to be used.

X: Will this initiative make CALS bigger? Will you be adding more faculty and enrolling more students?

SL: Well, CALS has been getting smaller over the last 15 years or so, because of budget cuts. This will probably stem that. It will probably stabilize the number of faculty. Other than this initiative, we really don’t see baseline state support growing. We have to transition from state support to other kinds of support to keep the size of the college the same.

X: What is your timeline?

SL: The first date is the first working day in January, to deliver the required report, to the state legislature. The next deadline is to get planning money in next year’s budget. If we get that in the July 2015 budget, the scenario is to use that planning money over the next two, two and a half years to program the building. Construction would start two years after that. We hope to have the building ready for entry in 2020. Again, I do want to stress at the end of the day this is not a building that we’re building—we’re building an initiative.

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