The Nebraska Food for Health Center, a more than $40 million initiative to improve the lives of people around the world, was launched today at the University of Nebraska.
The multidisciplinary center will bring together strengths in agriculture and medicine from throughout the university system. It will help develop hybrid crops and foods to improve the quality of life of those affected by critical diseases including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancers, inflammatory bowel disease and mental disorders.
To launch the center the Raikes Foundation of Seattle, co-founded by Nebraska native Jeff Raikes and his wife, Tricia, committed a $3 million gift to the University of Nebraska Foundation, which includes a $1 million challenge grant.
“My Nebraska family has benefited tremendously from the university’s agriculture research over the years,” Jeff Raikes said. “It’s especially meaningful for us now to support this critical effort that will further define Nebraska as an agricultural leader while bringing together for the first time agricultural production, food processing and medical research to improve the health of people in this country and around the world.”
In recognition of Jeff Raikes’ service as chief executive officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Gates Foundation also made a $2 million gift in support of the center.
“Jeff’s leadership made a tremendous impact in our work at the Gates Foundation,” Bill Gates said. “Melinda and I are pleased to honor his contribution and personal commitment to making a significant impact in his home state.”
University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds said, “The Nebraska Food for Health Center is an example of what is possible when we put the collective strengths of our faculty to work to address critical challenges. I thank the Raikes Foundation and Gates Foundation for their vision and support, and I’m excited about the innovations that will result from this new collaborative effort.”
The center, which is pending approval by the NU Board of Regents, will initially focus on:
- Bringing together a research team to tie gastrointestinal and biomedical research to agriculture, plant and animal breeding and genetics. In addition to University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty, the team includes faculty from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
- Establishing a research program to develop foods with proven health benefits, particularly those that affect the human gut microbiome — the collection of all the beneficial and potentially harmful micro-organisms in the digestive system that can affect health and well-being.
- Preparing a talented workforce for careers in food health, including researchers, food and health industry leaders and food innovation entrepreneurs.
“Nebraska has the only university system with the visionary sciences, a powerful agriculture base and clinically-oriented biomedical research that is uniting around human food-for-health issues and the microbiome,” University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green said. “We’re extremely thankful for these investments in areas of university strength to elevate important research for Nebraskans and the world.”
Andrew Benson, the W.W. Marshall Jr. Professor of Biotechnology, will direct the center. He said the microbiome of the human gut is like a newly discovered organ that offers new opportunities for disease prevention and treatment.
“There are trillions of microbes – bacteria, viruses, fungi and more – living in the gut, and they aren’t just along for the ride,” Benson said. “The gut microbiome normally acts in concert with the body to regulate organs, develop our immune systems, fight disease and metabolize foods.”
Abnormalities in the gut microbiome are being discovered as factors in many diseases, Benson said. Because microbiomes are fed by the same foods that we consume, researchers can develop foods with health-promoting ingredients that work by selectively feeding beneficial microbes or prohibiting growth of more harmful species.
“This new interface between agriculture and medicine holds tremendous potential to transform how we think about preventing and treating disease,” he said.
University funding of the center includes $19.8 million over five years and $20.5 million from private donations. The gifts from the Raikes and Gates foundations provide startup funds for equipment needs and operational priorities. Of the remaining $15.5 million needed in private donations, $12 million will provide permanently endowed support, and $3.5 million will support anticipated research space.
Jeff Raikes had a 27-year career at Microsoft in which he was a senior leader and president of the Microsoft Business Division. He retired as CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2014 after guiding the organization through more than five years of growth.
Jeff and Tricia Raikes serve on the board of the Jeffrey S. Raikes School of Computer Science and Management at Nebraska and Jeff Raikes is board chair of the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute. Jeff Raikes also serves on the boards for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, Costco Wholesale and the Microsoft Alumni Network and is a Stanford University trustee.
Tricia Raikes is a White House Champion of Change for work on youth homelessness. She provided leadership of creative services at Microsoft and co-founded Marketing Partners, a communication firm for high-tech companies. She serves on the boards of the College Success Foundation and is a former board member of Stanford’s Task Force on Undergraduate Education and the United Way of King County.