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$51 million awarded to Champaign-Piatt-Macon biomanufacturing tech hub project

U of I Integrated Bioprocessing Research Lab associate director Beth Conerty, Champaign County EDC executive director Carly McCrory-McKay, and EDC of Decatur/Macon County president Nicole Bateman (L-R) helped form the iFAB Tech Hub to spur economic growth and job creation in Central Illinois through biomanufacturing and precision fermentation. Conerty is now iFAB's regional innovation officer.

A year-long campaign to promote biomanufacturing in central Illinois has paid off for the University of Illinois and its partners.  

The U-S Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration has awarded approximately $51 million grant to a consortium led by the University of Illinois, to establish the Illinois Fermentation and Agriculture Biomanufacturing (or iFAB) tech hub in Champaign, Piatt and Macon Counties.

The goal of iFAB is to promote the development in central Illinois of biomanufacturing, including precision fermentation. These new technologies are used to produce medicines, food and beverages and industrial materials from raw agricultural materials such as corn and soybeans. Proponents of biomanufacturing believe it can provide a viable alternative to products now made with fossil fuels.

Beth Conerty, with the university’s Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory (IBRL), is the regional innovation officer for the new iFAB tech hub. She says iFAB, when fully established, will help small companies that currently have to go to Europe or China to find facilities for scaling up their biomanufacturing projects from the pilot to the demonstration stage.

“And that is largely because the resources that are needed to do it, do not exist right now in the United States,” said Conerty. “We think that this iFAB grant and a lot of the projects that are getting funded can really help change that.” 

The five-year grant from the Economic Development Administration will pay for the construction of new precision fermentation facilities at the IBRL on the University of Illinois Urbana campus, upgrade the fermentation facilities at Archer Daniels Midland’s plant in Decatur, and increase fermentation capacity at Primient’s Decatur facility (in a joint project with New York-based Synonym). The grant will also support the iFAB Tech Hub’s management.

Nicole Bateman is president of the Economic Development Corporation for Decatur and Macon County, one of the partners in the iFAB consortium. She and other iFAB partners envision the Decatur-Champaign area becoming a catalyst for economic growth. In that vision, companies that come to central Illinois to use its biomanufacturing facilities will stay in the region as they grow.

“That means that they’re moving here,” said Bateman. “They’re bringing their families; they’re enrolling in our schools. They build homes, and then when they eventually build their companies in the region after they’ve gone through the entire scaling process — more jobs, more retail and shopping.”

Bateman says central Illinois is a good spot for a tech hub because of the bio-manufacturing and research that’s already done here, and the proximity to corn and soybeans used as feedstocks. 

Other members of the iFAB consortium include the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation, Parkland and Richland community colleges, industry firms and groups, labor unions and workforce training organizations, and state and local governments.

iFAB is one of 12 tech hub projects receiving a combined $504 million in funding announced July 2 by the federal Economic Development Administration. The grants were authorized by the CHIPS and Science Act, federal legislation passed in 2022 to promote research in science and technology.

The EDA is also funding another biomanufacturing project in the Indianapolis metro area. Heartland BioWorks will focus on “increasing the region’s capacity to make and deploy life-saving medicines”, according to the EDA’s website.

Picture of Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows has been covering local news for WILL Radio since 2000, with occasional periods as local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered and a stint hosting WILL's old Focus talk show. He was previously a reporter at public radio station WCBU in Peoria.

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