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Science, ag, development see chemistry in partnership

By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
    A first-time grant is creating an unusual intersection of education, agriculture and science, and in the center of it, supporters hope, will be economic development.
    The three-year, $680,000 grant was awarded by the United States Department of Agriculture to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, in partnership with the University of Illinois Extension and Monroe County Economic Development Corporation. The grant seeks to leverage the assets of each of the parties to do two basic things: help businesses get a foothold in a variety of industries; and boost agricultural education.
    Dr. Bob Dixon, a PhD in the SIUE Department of Chemistry, is the principal investigator of the grant, and is working with the campus’ NCERC, the national corn-to-ethanol research plant at the university.
    Courtney Breckenridge, assistant director at NCERC, called the effort a close partnership “in terms of connecting the academic side of research with the industrial side of research that NCERC is known for.”
    “We plan to provide small businesses, startups and farmers the science they need to grow their businesses or their farms,” Dixon said. His science students will be helping with tailored research.
    The project plans to enlist faculty and staff from six academic departments and five centers at SIUE. Some of those are environmental sciences, sociology, geography, mass communications, nutrition, the Office of Educational Outreach, the Small Business Development Center and the Environmental Resources Training Center.

First business comes forward

    One Metro East business has already reached out to the university. Brad Eastman, the owner of Beastman Tea LLC, is working to launch a project in earnest in January, Breckenridge said.
    “He came in and gave a presentation about his story. He’s going to interact with students from different disciplines. We’ve got some graduate students that are part of these teams. He’s really benefitting from some higher-level insight and ideas, and these students in turn will be getting practice in interacting professionally.”
    Eastman is a cancer survivor who said he developed the tea as a means of treating his immune system.
    “I’m an endurance athlete, marathoner, and ironman triathlete,” he says on his website. “I had the shock of my life in March 2013 when I was diagnosed with a malignant, baseball-sized brain tumor just after finishing in the top 1% of the Walt Disney World Marathon.
    “During my cancer treatment, I needed to support my immune system. I looked for a product that was healthy, naturally hydrating, caffeine-free and delicious. I found none. I decided to develop the perfect beverage myself. In 2015, I was cancer free. And Beastman Tea was born.”
    Eastman could not be reached for comment on what he might be able to gain from SIUE’s assistance, but he says on his website that he is working on distribution plans for his product, which comes in multiple flavors. At press time, Eastman was also a finalist in the 2018 round of the Metro East Startup Challenge, with actual winners expecting to be announced early in November.
    Dixon said he hopes to use the grant helping as many businesses as possible, with students providing most of the labor.
    “The projects are going to be relatively small in terms of cost. We have students that will be working on the projects as part of their academic experience. So, the costs are going to be for the chemicals and the laboratory equipment we need to do the tests,” he said.  
    Dixon is hoping for a broad range of clients from Metro East, with Monroe County a particular focus of the grant. Science will be a big driver of each project but each will also have a strong outreach component. Student results will be shared through social media and press releases.
    The grant is coming via a program of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture Non-Land Grant College of Agriculture. The project is officially called, “Fueling Growth: An Integrated, Capacity-Building Grant for Experiential Learning, Extension and Economic (E3) Development in Rural America.”
    A second, smaller focus of the grant is on agricultural education, which took a significant hit during state funding cuts of the last few years, affected some needs of the workforce. University of Illinois Extension will play a role through its presence in schools.
    “There is a huge workforce demand in this area for agriculture and agriculture-related careers,” Breckinridge said. “We’re obviously not getting into the business of crop science or livestock, but there is a lot of agricultural research taking place around SIUE right now and we are trying to link that together more meaningfully,” she said.
    Dixon said a couple of things led to the grant application.
    “We’d been working with a couple of farmers trying to help them on projects. I saw the need and we were looking for new direction in some of our USDA grant applications. Courtney and I brainstormed and we thought this would be a good way to take the interest we were seeing and make it into a more formalized educational component.”
    The SIUE students will be integral to the program. They will listen to clients, come up with a plan of action, do the research, prepare the final report and present it to the client.
    “It a glimpse of what the real-world workforce looks like,” Dixon said.
    Breckenridge sees the potential of the program going beyond the three-year period of the grant.
    “Absolutely. I feel pretty strongly that this is something we can make self-sustaining. SIUE has really only scratched the surface of how it can be working with the community in different ways. This model has a lot of promise.”

Monroe County plays role in grant program

    Monroe County Economic Development Corporation Director Edie Koch believes a grant received by SIUE could be the genesis of good things in her region.
    The department serves all of Monroe County as well as the village of Dupo in neighboring St. Clair County.
    Monroe County has substantial entrepreneurial activity, a vibrant small-business community driven in part by food, beverage and agricultural-based companies including microbreweries, distilleries and restaurants. It has a strong agriculture and agri-business sector.
    In addition to startups, there are also larger food businesses in the county, places like Sun Basket in Valmeyer and Kuna Foodservice in Dupo.
    “Monroe County Economic Development Corporation is always seeking innovative new ways to support its existing business members and attract new opportunities to our region,” said Koch. “We are excited about the prospect of creating and retaining more jobs for the region through this new initiative. This project will not only provide new fuel to the entrepreneurial spirit of the region, but also will allow us to target our agriculture, food, and beverage companies with key services that will help them develop and grow.”
    Agriculture education and career development in grades K-12 is the third focus of the grant initiative. Led by the University of Illinois Extension Madison-Monroe-St. Clair division, the project will bring agriculture educators and experiences to classrooms across the Metro East.
    “Bringing agriculture education into the classroom helps raise students’ awareness of the many career opportunities that exist and their understanding of some of the biggest issues of our time,” said Pamela Jacobs, county extension director for the University of Illinois Extension Madison-Monroe-St. Clair Unit.
    Koch calls the SIUE/Monroe/Extension partnership win-win.
    “It allows us to add another tool to our toolbox in terms of trying to helping our ag businesses grow, and makes us more attractive in terms of working with prospects. I can’t claim to know everything they’re going to be doing in their chemistry department, but they have a wide variety of testing that can help an entrepreneur perfect a product or add a product.”
    The program is just underway, but Koch said she has already talked to one businessman interested in doing something with hydroponics.