Commitment to Agriculture and Rural Minnesota Still Drives AURI

Created by legislation in 1987 as part of the Greater Minnesota Corporation, AURI began operating as a stand-alone entity in 1989 with the mission of improving the economy of rural Minnesota through value-added opportunities for the state’s agricultural commodities.

AURI is a non-profit corporation that also maintains a strong and critical partnership with the Minnesota legislature. The state has been a key collaborative partner during the 30-year journey. Over its 30 years, AURI has maintained offices and laboratories in rural Minnesota, including Crookston, Marshall, and Waseca. It also operated prior to 2003 in Morris and does have a small presence in the metro.

To mark its 30th anniversary, some of AURI’s longest-serving employees offer their insights into the organization’s evolution and offer a glimpse into the future.

 

“The mid-1980s were a devastating time for agriculture with extremely low commodity values,” said former Senator Roger Moe, who was instrumental in the creation of AURI. “Agriculture needed to find new uses for its production and Minnesota needed to find a way to add value to productivity and help farmers—this led to the creation of AURI.”

“I was highly intrigued by the value-added mission,” Sparby says. “I grew up on a family farm that was lost in the farm crisis of the 1980s, so agriculture is near and dear to my heart.”

Sparby became the general manager of AURI’s Morris office and now serves as a senior project strategist. Sparby says the biggest changes he’s seen in the organization during his more than two decades at AURI is the service delivery structure.

“Project development and technical services were two separate units then and they didn’t always connect,” Sparby recalls. “We’ve evolved to the point where it’s an extreme team approach. Project and technical staff bring to bear both projects and initiatives. Our process now is highly systematic and collaborative. We’ve become more efficient and effective in delivering on our mission.”

Sparby says an important factor for AURI’s present and future success is listening. AURI initiated a stakeholder analysis program nearly 20 years ago. AURI staff sits down with partners and stakeholders to discover what opportunities and market barriers they see in their agriculture sector. Those activities frequently lead to public domain research that helped to identify market opportunities

“We went from being reactionary to almost being predictive,” Sparby says.

AURI offers unique programs and facilities. Equally important are AURI’s networks for connecting resources.

“The number one value we provide is our networks and the ability to work with universities, government, and industry of all sizes across pretty much any value chain. I can’t think of many industries in which we don’t have contacts,” Sparby states.

With 30 years in the rearview mirror, Sparby says the future holds plenty of need for AURI assistance.

“Ideas are always going to be there,” Sparby says. “Trends happen and helping companies to react to those trends will always be our sweet spot.”

Michael Sparby

Senior Project Strategist

Michael came to AURI in 1996 after working for the Minnesota Attorney General’s office and interning at the World Trade Corporation where he tracked the legislation creating AURI.

 

“When I first joined AURI, I had never thought of working in agriculture,” Gjersvik admits. “I had no ag background, but the organization looked intriguing. The more I’ve been around people with good, exciting ideas, the less I ever wanted to leave.”

Gjersvik says working for a small organization with a big role to play in making a difference in the landscape of Minnesota and keeping rural areas vital made a personal difference for her.

Through the years, Gjersvik says AURI has remained market driven. The organization’s mission to foster long-term economic benefit to Minnesota has not waivered, although delivering on that mission has changed with the times
and needs.

“Early on, we were reactive, working with one company at a time. As we’ve evolved, we recognized we could make a greater impact if we looked at an entire industry and did research into what’s holding the industry back,” Gjersvik explains. “We take that information and get it into the hands of people who can use it through our innovation networks. We’re always evolving to deliver the greatest impact that we can.”

Having been a part of AURI for nearly its entire existence, Gjersvik has seen how organizational changes have helped maintain relevance.

“We’ve added and eliminated different programs over the years based on historical or potential impact,” Gjersvik contends. “We look for programs and projects with the greatest impact potential and then apply the resources to move them forward. Also, clients have told us how AURI assistance adds credibility to their efforts,” Gjersvik explains. “Our reputation is that of an enabler. That’s a terrific reflection of how AURI is seen.”

Lisa Gjersvik
Senior Director of Strategy Management

Lisa joined the AURI staff in Waseca in 1989, just months after the organization incorporated.

 

There’s hardly an agricultural product or ag-based coproduct that Alan Doering hasn’t tested or manipulated. His role as scientist at AURI’s coproducts lab in Waseca means he’s worked with animal manures, crops and agricultural processing coproducts of all types to create value-added uses.

Doering joined AURI in 2000, providing technical services in the coproduct utilization lab. He’s now a senior scientist for coproducts.

“I’ve always had a passion for ag. That’s where my heart is. In this position with AURI, working to add value to agriculture gives me true satisfaction,” Doering says. “To see a client’s or company’s idea reach commercialization is what motivates me.”

Doering says a key to AURI’s success lies in the hands-on approach the organization takes.

“We get to know the clients. We work closely with them and have a great investment in their success,” Doering contends.

The cyclical nature of the agriculture economy means AURI emphasizes being nimble while never forgetting the role the organization plays.

“We remain focused on working with Minnesota commodities and products that are or can be grown in Minnesota so that Minnesota benefits,” Doering says.

Minnesota businesses and the state’s economy have benefited from AURI. Doering points to R&D efforts for creating products such as chemical surfactants (Preference and Destiny), Pet Care Systems’ Swheat Scoop cat litter, assisting Minnesota’s biodiesel industry and if you talk with him, he’ll list countless others as examples of AURI’s contributions to the agricultural industry.

“We’ve been around, so now we get clients referred to us because processing groups are aware of us and what we’re doing,” Doering says. “People understand better who we are and what we do.”

With that industry recognition and a constantly changing agriculture economy, Doering believes there will be many more needs for AURI services far beyond AURI’s 30th year.

“People will always need help with product development and how we help will advance with them,” Doering says. “There will always be need whether its in food, coproducts, renewable energy or biobased materials.”

Alan Doering

Senior Scientist-Coproducts

Alan joined AURI in 2000, providing technical services in the coproduct utilization lab.