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‘We all eat’ — Innovation Conversations’ all-star lineup will address sustainability issues

August 25, 2021

An all-star lineup of speakers is planned for NIU’s new series of Innovation Conversations, which launched last spring and brings in high-level experts to discuss sustainable food systems.

“Food systems affect everybody—we all eat,” says Bryan Flower, assistant director of food systems innovation for NIU’s Division of Research and Innovation Partnerships (RIPS). “It’s time to start learning more about what’s available to us, how we can be more sustainable, and how to make a difference in the world by the choices we make.”

Free and open to the public, the upcoming Innovation Conversations will be held in the 71 North Partnership Studio (in the lower level of Founders Memorial Library). Registration is required, and audience members have the option of attending in person or joining the events virtually.

Paul Lightfoot, founder and president of BrightFarms, will kick off the fall series with a discussion from 3 to 4 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 2, on controlled environment agriculture and the role it will play in the future of food systems.

BrightFarms builds and operates high-tech greenhouse farms, including one in nearby Rochelle, to eliminate time, distance and costs from its produce supply chain. Lightfoot has been leading the company since 2011 on its mission to provide consumers with the freshest, tastiest and most responsibly grown produce. BrightFarms was 235th on the 2017 Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing private companies.

NIU alumnus and Youtech founder and CEO Wilbur You, named to Forbes Magazine’s annual 30 Under 30 list, will discuss marketing strategies and entrepreneurism in food systems from 3 to 4 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 23.

Youtech integrates technology and marketing for businesses to make them more productive and successful in the 21st century. Headquartered in both Naperville and Scottsdale, Ariz., with plans to expand into Texas, Youtech services more than 1,000 clients, including MillerCoors, Chick-fil-A and 3M. With You as CEO, the company has been ranked in Inc.’s Fastest Growing Companies in the country for the past four years.

Mandi Lynn Kerr, CEO  and founder of the Global Hemp Association (GHA), will talk from 3 to 4 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 21, about hemp sustainability and its role in the food systems of the future.

GHA was founded to connect farmers, manufacturers, distributors and even regulators to advance hemp in textiles, food, biofuels, construction, education and sustainability. The association is the networker for hemp professionals.

The Innovation Conversation Series is sponsored by RIPS and the Northern Illinois Center for Community Sustainability (NICCS). Last spring’s conversations were well attended—and Flower expects the audiences to grow.

“We’re really hoping to draw more deans and faculty leaders from our different NIU schools, and more community members,” Flower said. “We’ll also be delving into more technology-related and intellectual-property topics, so you can expect the series to grow in its breadth as well.”