Nebraska Innovation Campus attracts research-based startups and makers

Slowly rising out of the former state fairgrounds, Nebraska Innovation Campus in Lincoln, Nebraska, is beginning to take shape. Considerable vacant space remains to be developed over the 20-year planning horizon for Nebraska Innovation Campus (NIC), but three key facilities are completed and occupied: Innovation Commons, the Food Innovation Center, and the Greenhouse Innovation Center….

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The 45,000-sqare foot NIC Greenhouse Innovation Center features state-of-the-art computer environmental controls. Photo courtesty of Nebraska Innovation Campus.

Slowly rising out of the former state fairgrounds, Nebraska Innovation Campus in Lincoln, Nebraska, is beginning to take shape.

Considerable vacant space remains to be developed over the 20-year planning horizon for Nebraska Innovation Campus (NIC), but three key facilities are completed and occupied: Innovation Commons, the Food Innovation Center, and the Greenhouse Innovation Center.

“Nobody thought we’d have 380,000 square feet built and 90% leased by now,” said Dan Duncan, NIC Executive Director. “2015 was a milestone year for us, and we’re thrilled about it.”

The next Ag Tech hub

So what companies now call NIC home? Along with ecommerce company Spreetail, which just moved onto campus, several companies are in the ag tech sector, including Intellifarm and Quantified Ag. They occupy space in the Food Innovation Center and appreciate the proximity to food science faculty and students.

“The space is meant for public/private partnerships with the University,” said Steve Tippery, President and CEO of Intellifarm. “The target for the campus is right on the money.”

Besides access to faculty and students, being in close proximity to other ag tech startups is important.

“It was great to be in the Haymarket,” said Vishal Singh, CEO and Founder of Quantified Ag. “Nebraska Global gave us a desk for 3 months before we moved here. However, we’re an ag tech startup, which may be a little different from companies like Bulu Box or Opendorse.”

Eventually startups needs to find a space that matches their industry.

“We do go after investment funding,” said Singh. “But the type of products we’re bringing to market lend themselves to grant funding, and it always helps when you’re located right here with a research institution.”

Being close to other other companies within the same vertical has its own payoff.

“There’s a pretty big benefit from being among ag tech startups,” said Brian Schupbach, CTO of Quantified Ag. “There’s enough of us and specific issues we deal with that we’ve started an ag tech meetup group.”

Maker space gaining traction

Food science faculty and students make up a large portion of current NIC traffic, but the Innovation Studio maker space is starting to bring more cross-disciplinary activity among both students and adults.

“Apart from the food science department, Innovation Studio is the primary draw for students,” said Dr. Shane Farritor, Professor of Engineering and organizer of the UNL Maker Club, which now boasts over 700 members. “We hope to have the club put on once-a-week events in the studio in the near future.”

Innovation Studio is about 1/3 built out and includes equipment for woodworking, sewing and weaving, as well as 3-D printing and laser cutting. The space is open to the general public for a monthly fee.

“We opened Innovation Studio in 2015 and now have around 100 active members,” said Kate Engel, NIC Community Engagement & Operations Manager. “Even with a limited amount of pushing the response has been remarkable.”

Health innovation too

The newest addition to NIC is Enhance Health Network, a partnership formed by nine Nebraska-based health care systems. CEO Dr. Michael Hein sees great value in locating at NIC.

“Health care is in a state of flux,” Hein said. “Innovation Campus allows us to interact with non-health care leaders, startups and others to explore unique solutions that can result from unintentional collisions between industries that don’t typically interact.”

NIC operates with a developer-at-risk model in partnership with Tetrad Property Group, under which the private developer assumes considerable risk for the project.

“Our job is facilitating the real estate component of the real driver, which is to enhance the economy of Nebraska,” said Jennifer Brinkman, Director of Communications for Tetrad. “We think we’re light years ahead of where we thought we’d be.”

So is it all going according to plan?

“We’ve stayed very true to our original mission,” Duncan said. “But we’ve made several u-turns to create a critical mass. We’re essentially a startup, and you need to pivot when the market tells you to.”

Rod Armstrong is Vice President of Strategic Partnerships for AIM in Lincoln, Nebraska. He is a regular contributor to Silicon Prairie News.

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