US consumers spend US$23 billion on pet food each year. Kansas garners US$7 billion of the national total, and an integrated program and industry engagement approach at Kansas State University is aiming to bring much more of it to the state and region.
The university has supported the pet food industry for a number of years, but more recently these efforts have been bundled and leveraged by Greg Aldrich, research associate professor of grain science and industry. Aldrich joined Kansas State University in 2012 to establish a pet food science program to support the growing industry.
"There's a demand for trained food scientists, animal scientists and feed scientists who understand manufacturing food for companion animals," Aldrich said.
But Aldrich knew the pet food industry was hungry for innovation as well as workers, and he realized that the necessary engineering, raw materials and transportation were available in a 200-mile radius around Manhattan. He and his students were eager to demonstrate a new pet treat product, so when Petfood Forum, the industry's major international meeting, moved to Kansas City for a three-year stint starting in spring 2015, Aldrich knew it was time to make a push. In collaboration with Kansas State University, Petfood Forum offered a hands-on pet treat innovation workshop at K-State Olathe during the April 2015 conference.
Interest was so high that Petfood Forum invited the university to collaborate in creating the Petfood Innovation Workshop and the K-State Pet Food Experience in late October. Nearly 200 attendees gathered in Manhattan, 19 of whom were high-ranking company officials such as presidents, founders or chief executives. Participants came from 22 states and seven countries to hear eight Kansas State University faculty presentations, view 28 student research posters, hear keynote speakers from the Kansas Department of Agriculture and the Department of Commerce, and participate in hands-on workshops to make pet treats.
Rebecca Robinson, director of economic development at the Kansas State University Institute for Commercialization, said the workshop was a success.
"At one of the stations, we were making the gummy treat that Aldrich and his students invented," Robinson said. "That demonstration increased the exposure of the technology and gained a lot of interest in the technology, but it also piqued industry participants' interest in K-State's capability to innovate."
Aldrich said the meeting brought together researchers, students, industry contacts, innovators and public officials to a town hall-style meeting to discuss how the industry can grow in Kansas. Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Jackie McClaskey was among the speakers. She said working with Kansas State University to develop the industry is a priority for the agency.
Richard Potter, director of corporate engagement for the university, said the collaboration with the Kansas Department of Agriculture is promising.
"This is a great example of value-added agriculture where K-State and the state of Kansas truly excel," Potter said. "We have opportunity to be the hub for the growing, global pet food industry."
Potter said the growth of the industry also presents an opportunity to promote Kansas State University's multidisciplinary research strengths.
"The industry encompasses nutrition, sensory analysis, veterinary medicine, animal science, grain science, engineering, marketing, economics, chemistry, biology," he said. "There's room in the sandbox for virtually every college on campus."
Trent Armbrust, director of business development and strategic initiatives with the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce, has worked with Aldrich, Potter and Robinson from the beginning.
"It's exciting because it brings the private sector and university together," Armbrust said. "When these industry representatives were here, they were also seeing Manhattan, and we were able to tell them about the assets we have here. They were very impressed with the university and the town."
Aldrich said Kansas State University has the chance to become a leader in the field. His sights are set on an innovation center that would include leading-edge equipment and processing as well as advanced animal and analytical laboratory research.
"K-State can be the epicenter of pet food technology," he said. "I don't believe this kind of regional collaboration of academic, industry, and civic partners exists anywhere else in the country."
Pet owners want a lot from their pet food brands. They want primary proteins that suit what they believe is best for their animal. They want grains or they don't. They want something customized, but it has to be easy to understand.
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