Minnesota agriculture has tremendous assets and capacities. It also faces major challenges, including meeting increasing demand for commodities and other ecosystem services in the face of increasing climate variation and other forms of global change. Meeting these challenges will require substantial innovation and development creating, in turn, new economic opportunities for farmers, landowners, rural communities, and commercial enterprises on many scales. Many of these opportunities will be created by development of the new crops that will be developed under this initiative. To make the most of these opportunities, the University of Minnesota is using state-of-the-art approaches to commercializing new crops and new agricultural products. Specifically, the University is working to create commercialization pathways that are profitable, provide environmental benefits, and support rural communities. To do so, the University is developing a new approach to commercialization and enterprise development. Key to this approach is the development of active incubators for enterprise development, which we call ‘Landlabs’.
The most important function of a Landlab is to coordinate technological, economic and policy innovations, all of which are needed to create maximum benefits from commercialization of new crops. Commercialization is challenged by many ‘chicken & egg’ barriers, such as coordinating supply and demand in early-stage commercialization. To overcome these barriers, Landlabs emphasize development of all necessary parts of new enterprises, including production systems and related supply and value chains. Establishment of these depends on obtaining and coordinating technical capability and financial resources, managing risk, and meeting societal expectations for new enterprises in economic, environmental and social terms. To meet these key needs in enterprise development, Landlabs coordinate innovation and development within three critical areas: landscape configurations (i.e., types and arrangements of land uses), supply/value chains (i.e., processing and utilization), and policy. Moreover, Landlabs, link and leverage resources from multiple societal sectors to drive innovation across domains. These ‘incubator’ functions of Landlabs are critically important because private enterprise, government, NGOs and research institutions are increasingly investing and innovating in new agricultural enterprises, often based on new crops. However, these efforts are largely uncoordinated, and neglect key areas such as early-stage commercialization and policy development. Landlabs are needed to coordinate these investments and to provide a crucial function: lowering barriers to the emergence of new enterprises by ‘derisking’ these new enterprises for farmers, landowners, and a wide range of investors.
By using state-of-the-art methods for decision support and enterprise design, Landlabs coordinate a broad range of innovation and other related activities and reduce risk in enterprise development. In particular, Landlabs use methods for developing new enterprises that increase total agroecosystem productivity by capturing value from undervalued resources, e.g., water and nutrients that are released from current agroecosystems. To pursue commercialization pathways that capture and create value in this way, Landlabs place emphasis on certain essential activities. These include communication, innovation and collaborative action by multiple stakeholders, whose concerns range from agriculture to rural communities, water, wildlife, and renewable energy.
Landlabs will feature and leverage the established capacities of the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality (CCV), which helps communities retain and expand local business, know and grow the retail sector, make informed public finance decisions and develop successful tourism opportunities. The CCV will engage with a wide range of stakeholders, entrepreneurs and investors from private enterprise, government, NGOs and research institutions to develop strategies for commercialization of new enterprises based on new plant materials, using its well-established model of technology-transfer distribution. Dr. Brent D. Hales, Associate Dean of Extension, Center for Community Vitality will co-direct the initiative along with participants in the pilot-scale Landlab efforts being conducted by the University of Minnesota. Through these collaborative efforts, the Landlab will identify scalable distribution strategies to develop supply and value chains for new products. Emphasis will be placed on local development of the supply chain, thereby increasing the likelihood that ownership of the product and processes will result in the greatest return on investment for the region(s) and thereby increasing local and regional economic growth from enterprise development. The CCV will work with its partners to identify communities/regions with workforce, land and other resources needed for enterprise development.
The Landlab approach to commercialization and enterprise development is designed to catalyze the wide-ranging innovation needed to efficiently produce a wide range of goods and ecosystem services from our land and resource base, thereby developing agricultural enterprises that meet the ‘triple bottom line’ of high performance in environmental, economic and social terms. Such enterprises will benefit farmers, landowners, rural communities and the State of Minnesota. By focusing on creating enterprises that meet the triple bottom line, Landlabs help advance the mission of the University of Minnesota as a 21st-century land-grant university.
Nick Jordan, Professor, Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics
Brent D. Hales, Associate Dean of Extension