UNCP to partner with N.C. State's $30 million Bezos-backed sustainable protein research center

By Staff Report, posted 1 week ago
(left to right) Dr. Jim Pfaendtner, NC State, Dr. Robin Gary Cummings, UNCP Chancellor, Andy Jarvis, The Bezos Earth Fund, Dr. Rohan Shirwaiker, NC State, Dr. Andrew Steer, president/CEO of the Bezos Earth Fund, Dr. Randy Woodson, NC State Chancellor, Dr. William Aimutis NC Food Innovation Lab, Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young, USDA, Toni Bucci, Sable Fermentation, Dr. Garey Fox, NC State
Photo credit: NC State

UNC Pembroke will play a founding role in new research initiatives for alternative proteins through a partnership with N.C. State University.

Last week, the Bezos Earth Fund launched its first Bezos Center for Sustainable Protein on N.C. State’s campus. The Earth Fund awarded N.C. State a $30 million grant to create a biomanufacturing hub for dietary proteins that are healthy, environmentally friendly and affordable. The grant will support the center’s research into plant-based products, precision fermentation and cultivated meat grown from animal cells.

The grant will also fund the center’s work to create and commercialize new technologies, provide workforce training and conduct community outreach related to the biomanufacturing of a variety of dietary proteins for the world's rapidly growing population.

Dr. Bryan Sales, assistant professor and agriculture program director at UNCP, will lead UNC Pembroke’s work with the Bezos Center. Under his leadership, UNCP students will participate in mentored research projects across the center’s focus areas as well as in industry internships and summer research opportunities at the new center, better preparing them to enter the alternative sustainable protein field as this industry grows.

"This initiative is ultimately about empowering communities for long-term resilience and health," UNCP Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings said in a press release. "By involving our students in such meaningful work, we are preparing the next generation of leaders and innovators who will drive sustainable solutions for the future and improve the health and quality of life for communities around the world.”

According to N.C. County Health Rankings, Robeson County, home to UNCP, has some of the highest percentages in the state for food insecurity, positioning UNCP to introduce the Center’s work to some of communities most in need, Cummings added.

Dr. Rohan Shirwaiker, N.C. State professor and co-director of the center, said UNCP was selected as a founding partner due to its long history in crop and animal agriculture, its exposure to an economically challenged region and its existing academic partnerships with N.C. State.

Shirwaiker said the center will hopefully lead to an increase in biomanufacturing firms choosing to locate in North Carolina, generating jobs and spurring economic growth. 

Both Cummings and Sales attended the formal opening for the center at N.C. State. The N.C. State center aligns with the Bezos Earth Fund’s $1 billion grant commitment to help transform food and agricultural systems to support healthy lives without degrading the planet.

"I'm excited UNCP is involved as a founding member and look forward to the opportunities it will present for our students to contribute to innovative research with real-world impact as this project grows,” Sales said in a press release. “This is the beginning of a much larger movement—to supply sustainably based and produced proteins at a low cost to food insecure regions, nations and to the communities right here in North Carolina and it’s rewarding to know UNCP will play a part in that."

Along with UNCP, N.C. A&T State University, Duke University and Forsyth Tech will also be academic partners to N.C. State in the Bezos Center’s research, workforce development and community engagement efforts. In addition, more than 20 industry partners will be part of the center to facilitate technology transfer and student internships and mentorships.

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