Ag bioscience could be key to Minnesota’s economic future

By Teresa Spaeth

Minnesota’s economic future may well be rooted in its historic leadership in agricultural production, a new report shows. Agbioscience as a Development Driver: Minnesota Agbioscience Strategy, was done by the world-renowned Battelle Technology Partnership Practice. Ag bioscience is a term that refers to agriculture and the related biosciences. From food safety to renewable products to human nutrition, ag bioscience is a critical component of the global future.

We know that agriculture and its related industries are an area of economic strength for Minnesota; the agriculture industry is the second largest employer in the state. So we at the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, along with the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council and Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council, commissioned this study to have a clear assessment of Minnesota’s key capacities and opportunities in ag bioscience.  Likewise, the report suggests a strategy for how Minnesota can transform this fundamental strength into leading-edge innovation and economic growth. If we combine our research capacity with industry and future trends, the state can become a national and global leader in ag bioscience, creating economic impact and more jobs in both rural and urban Minnesota.

While the study was commissioned by these three organizations, a steering team of Minnesota leaders from across government, higher education, agriculture, and agribusiness led the study. (Click here to see a complete list of steering team members.)

We hope that by the end of this article, readers will understand what this report says about the potential of ag bioscience as an economic development driver for Minnesota—especially rural Minnesota. We also hope that interested organizations and individuals will want to participate in this effort to ensure a strong economic future for our state.

Platforms for growth

As part of the study, Battelle interviewed more than 100 individuals across Minnesota, including university faculty, researchers, and research administrators, as well as professionals in applied research, technology transfer, and economic development. The study found that:

Minnesota enjoys a diversity of agbioscience R&D core competencies that represents the foundation of know-how upon which Minnesota can continue to support agbioscience innovation and generate new businesses, economic expansion, and jobs. However, individual core competencies are not sufficient to support agbioscience innovation and spur growing and emerging markets. Increasingly, agbioscience innovation requires going beyond single disciplines through transdisciplinary approaches that explore the interfaces and merge boundaries of multiple fields of research in order to solve increasingly complex problems. To maximize the development potential of its agbioscience core competencies, Minnesota needs to consider how these core competencies can be integrated into broader strategic technology platforms to serve growing and emerging market opportunities.

The Battelle study identified four key ag bioscience platforms that hold the most promise for Minnesota. To be identified as a platform, there must be 1) a cluster of competencies with a significant base of research and development, 2) a group of existing businesses and institutions with interests in similar products, markets, feedstocks, processes, supply chains or technologies, 3) an area around which public/private partnerships may be developed, and 4) be associated with a significant potential market.

It’s important to note: “The identification of the four agbioscience technology platforms for Minnesota is not an end in itself, but rather a starting point for Minnesota to move ahead in overall agbioscience development.” The four platforms are:

• Microbial Agbioscience, including biosecurity, crop protection, genomics, biotechnology, animal and human vaccines, and diagnostics. These sectors are important in ensuring adequate food production and food security to feed a growing global population. The total global market for microbes and microbial products was worth more than $144 billion in 2010 and is projected to exceed $259 billion in 2016.

• Resilient and Sustainable Agricultural Systems, including areas such as green chemicals, renewable materials, emissions control, climate change adaptation and soil preservation.  These sectors are significant in reducing dependence on petroleum-based products and in mitigating human impact on the environment. Demand for agricultural biotechnology products in the U.S. is forecasted to reach $17.7 billion in 2016 based on annual growth of 5.9 percent from 2011.

• Biobased Industrial Products such as biofuels, biobased materials and chemicals, forest products and utilization of agricultural co-products. Biomaterial demand in the U.S. reached $3.3 billion in 2011 and is forecasted to reach $4.6 billion in 2016.

• Value-Added Food and Health Products including health supplements, animal feed and nutrition, and flavorful reduced-calorie foods.  Overall, the U.S. is leading the global nutraceuticals market with more than 33.1 percent of the market share in 2010, and this market is anticipated to grow at an average annual rate of 6.5 percent from 2011 to 2016.

What next?

The report says that, “In order for Minnesota to realize the potential of these technology platforms, it is essential to advance bold but also realistic development plans that incorporate ‘outside the box’ thinking about how best to create the strong, systematic linkages across Minnesota’s private sector and academic enterprises to ensure Minnesota is taking advantage of its agbioscience technology capabilities to remain strong in both its academic and industry settings.”

Specifically, Battelle recommends the following four next steps:

  • Opportunity 1: Form networks around the identified ag bioscience platforms to foster strategic partnering and tackle broad initiatives.
  • Opportunity 2: Establish competitively designated “Consortia of Innovation” around Minnesota’s four identified ag bioscience platforms.
  • Opportunity 3: Build upon Minnesota’s existing commercialization funds to support proof of concept and commercialization activities
  • Opportunity 4: Design and sustain a robust, ag bioscience-specific, entrepreneurial ecosystem


Obviously, each step in and of itself is a big undertaking. It will take broad, collaborative efforts in order to move these opportunities forward. There will be different organizations with varying strengths that will be best skilled to participate in or lead each of the opportunities.

To begin determining how to move these opportunities forward, we at AURI are having conversations with individuals and organizations across the state, including business leaders, economic development organizations and policymakers that are in positions to help move the state forward in this area.

We are also taking steps to achieve/initiate the first opportunity of network building. In partnership with Minnesota Rural Partners, AURI has begun an extensive network mapping project to identify additional people and organizations with specific interests and expertise in the identified platforms that are key to advancing ag bioscience in Minnesota.

What can you do?

Agriculture and its associated industries play a tremendous part in the Minnesota economy—from manufacturing to renewable energy to food creation—and the potential of ag bioscience is essential to the future of Minnesota. But we must work together to make the most of this opportunity. Without coordination and collaboration, this opportunity could pass us by.

If you or your organization or business is interested in helping create this focus in an area of global competitiveness, please contact us at

By having a strategic and targeted approach to ag bioscience development in Minnesota, we can make better use of resources, create collaborative public-private partnerships, attract more research and grant dollars into the state, and accelerate the transfer of research into commercialization. Ultimately, this initiative will lead to new businesses and economic growth for Minnesota—all founded in our state’s proven success in agriculture.

— Teresa Spaeth is executive director of the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute.

Agbioscience Study Steering Team Members/Organizations

Agricultural Utilization Research Institute | Minnesota Department of Agriculture | Farmers Union | Industries First Green Partners | Fredrickson-Byron | Glenmore Consulting | Midwest Dairy Association | Midwest Dairy Foods Research Center | Minnesota Agri-Growth Council | Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council | Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council | Minnesota Turkey/Chicken and Egg Association of Minnesota | MnSCU | Minnesota Office of Higher Education | University of Minnesota | USDA Agricultural Research Service