Cargill looks for 'fresh' approaches to industry challenges with new university innovation lab

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/Rawpixel
© GettyImages/Rawpixel

Related tags Cargill data management grain management

The Minnesota-based agro-giant, Cargill, announced last week that it was establishing a facility at the University of Illinois’ research park to provide students a place to evaluate and address feed and grain industry challenges.

The lab formally opens in the fall but there has already been an initial phase of research work there.

“The team worked on several projects during the 2019 summer session, where we used natural language processing to decipher Cargill safety reports, monitored hog feed via digital sensors, and used computer vision to count shrimp being harvested and manage grain deliveries," ​said Ginger Hundgen, interim site manager, the Innovation Lab.

The new facility is intended to draw upon the student population at the university to address challenges or questions facing global agriculture and food systems including areas like feed monitoring and grain shipment tracking, she said.

“The University of Illinois has had a long history of computing innovation,” ​she told FeedNavigator. “In addition to the human capital, top companies are vying for real estate at the university’s Research Park. Cargill’s goal is to use this talent pool and competitive environment to advance their ag-tech capabilities.”

The facility is set to focus on research on digital tools and data, she said. That focus is very much in line with Cargill's existing feed and agri-business portfolio.  

Digital innovation 

The new research facility provides semester-long internships to both undergraduate and graduate students, said Hundgen.

“During this time, they are assigned digital problems to work through using a series of project sprints,” ​she said. “Through ag-related field trips, guest speakers, and working with Cargill computer scientists, they gain a better understanding of the industry.”

The facility also provides the basic tools students would need to develop a productive work environment and training on project management, she said addressing the tools provided at the facility. “The Agile project management technique the students are taught gives them the freedom to brainstorm new ideas, troubleshoot blockers, and create an outcome within a short period of time,”​ she added.

The site will be led by data scientists from Cargill’s digital labs team, according to company information. Students working with the innovation lab will have the chance to work with Cargill employees, operations teams and customers to develop and test digital ideas.

The partnership gives the agri-giant access to software engineering and data science students interested in working to develop global agricultural supply chains or modernize food systems. 

"We are on a constant search for new innovation and new talent, whose fresh thinking can help us bring new technologies to life,"​ said Keith Narr, vice president of Cargill’s digital labs team.

The experience is also intended to expand educational opportunities for students, said Robert Jones, chancellor with the University of Illinois.

August announcements

August has been a busy month for Cargill. In addition to the opening of the company’s new innovation lab, it also launched an online calculator​ to help dairy producers calculate their milk component efficiency.

The digital tool examines feed use, herd production and milk components to determine herd efficiency by assessing how cows are able to transmute feed and forage into milkfat and protein. It also gives producers a way to improve financial returns.

Earlier this month, Cargill also received a green light from the US Department of Agriculture to grow its biotech, omega-3 producing canola​in the US. The company anticipates the crop will provide a consistent source of an oil that can be used in feed as an alternative to fish oil.

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