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Boise State awarded over $2M to launch Food and Dairy Innovation Center

people stand in long hallway
Attendees at 2021 BUILD Dairy Conference, hosted by Boise State University. Photo provided by BUILD program.

Boise State University is meeting the growing needs of food and dairy industries in Idaho and beyond with a new grant of more than $2 million from the Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission Higher Education Research Council (IGEM HERC). Over the next five years, the university will utilize this grant to establish the Boise State University Food and Dairy Innovation Center (FDIC).

The center will advance and create new food and dairy safety and processing technologies, establish a robust employee pipeline from university to industry, and generate knowledge and implementation of modern technology aimed at reducing usage of critical natural resources for the food and dairy industries.

“We are responding to industry demand,” said Owen McDougal, the FDIC principal investigator and chair of the Boise State chemistry department. “Industry is coming to us at Boise State, and they want us as a partner. They want a pipeline for students to jobs, and we are drawing on our strengths in chemistry, biology, engineering and computer science, not in a traditional food science perspective, but in a science and technology emphasis, based on our strengths as an institution of transdisciplinary research.”

people walk through lab space
BUILD Dairy event participants tour Boise State labs. Photo provided by BUILD Dairy Program.

In addition to project lead McDougal, the center will be led by engineering professor Jim Browning, dean of the college of engineering JoAnn Lighty, chemistry and biochemistry assistant professor Lisa Warner, and biology distinguished professor Julia Oxford.

The research team will oversee unique research elements of the center, including the use of cold plasma for food safety applications, artificial intelligence and machine learning, fabrication and development of new materials, and chemical analysis to improve food safety and quality.

This center also will educate Boise State students and interns in skills critical to Idaho’s food processing economy, and to conduct research relevant to industry collaborators, such as the Building University and Industry Linkages through Learning and Discovery (BUILD) Dairy Program in the Western Dairy Center, and Food Physics. BUILD engages 20 new students every year in dairy-related research, and connects them with dairy industry leaders, such as Glanbia, Agropur, Lactalis and more. Multiple Boise State students have excelled as members of the BUILD program.

people sit at round tables in event room
Students interview with BUILD Dairy and industry Human Resource representatives at the annual BUILD Dairy conference, photo by Owen McDougal

Eric Bastian, the director of the Western Dairy Center and the vice president of Innovation Partnerships at Dairy West, said the FDIC will create numerous opportunities for more students to get engaged in dairy research using new tools and analytical techniques that will advance the field. Bastian also believes that for the western dairy industry, which historically has to seek technical and research support outside of the region, the center will fill a fundamental need for support.

“We have a significant dairy industry in our region, and the location of this Food and Dairy Innovation Center at Boise State is perfect, the geography is perfect to service the industry that we have here,” said Bastian. “I see this [center] starting in an analytical space but then maybe moving into some pilot areas where we have pilot plant equipment that could be utilized for new product development for some of these companies.”

The Food and Dairy Innovation Center will use existing campus spaces to create a new lab and modules dedicated to the food processing and safety needs of industry collaborators.

The center also will conduct critical research by vetting the viability and outcomes of modern food processing methods, such as pulsed electric field systems, and be able to provide a low-risk opportunity to food and dairy industries to learn about the potential impact of investing in these new technologies for their products.

Owen McDougal (third from left) in collaboration with Boise-based company Food Physics. Photo by Priscilla Grover.

“We are vetting technology that will dramatically revolutionize the food process industry,” explained McDougal. “For example, pulsed electric field systems. A potato french fry processor isn’t going to invest a million dollars per line into a pulse electric field system unless they know the return on investment is going to be rapid. We can provide the data to support that investment, and what the impact is going to be in terms of the improvement in food quality, food safety. We can do the chemical analysis, the efficiency and sustainability studies to provide industry with an educated understanding of the influence that technology will have to improve their operations.”