Get to Know Sustainable Protein Co-Director Bill Aimutis

Food scientist Bill Aimutis, executive director of the North Carolina Food Innovation Lab, has a new assignment: co-directing the Bezos Center for Sustainable Protein at NC State University. Aimutis will lead the five-year, $30 million project with engineering colleague Rohan Shirwaiker.

Aimutis spent his career doing research and development work for companies like Cargill, Land O’Lakes and Kerry Ingredients before joining NC State in 2018 to launch the North Carolina Food Innovation Lab (NCFIL). NCFIL provides advanced food processing expertise and equipment to help food companies and entrepreneurs bring their products to market. Located on the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, NCFIL is the only university-based facility of its kind to earn cGMP certification, meaning that it uses a system of Food and Drug Administration controls to ensure high quality at each step of food processing.

A native of Indiana, Aimutis earned a bachelor’s degree in food science from Purdue University and master’s and doctoral degrees in food science from Virginia Tech. He’s served on advisory boards for several universities and done extensive consulting work.

Here are some things you may not know about Aimutis.

Working with milk proteins for infants launched his career.

“When I was a graduate student, actually, I started looking at the role of proteins in preventing diarrheal diseases in newborns in less-developed countries, which have a high morbidity and mortality rate. And at that time we thought — and we still do believe — that there are proteins that are decorated with sugars that are responsible for controlling pathogenic bacteria in the GI tract of an infant. I was looking at how glycoproteins in human milk and cow’s milk were related to immunity. I was very active in the animal protein area probably for 15 to 20 years of my career, and then I started doing more with plant-based proteins.”

He’s had a lot of practice explaining food science.

“I started my career with Chr. Hansen — a global company that makes food ingredients. While I was working at the laboratory in Milwaukee, one of the first things I had to do was explain a very technical subject to a bunch of Amish farmers in rural Pennsylvania. I always say that’s where I cut my teeth on being able to explain highly technical information to people so they understand it.”

“I was at Cargill when we started getting ready to launch Stevia. Because we had used precision fermentation to make Stevia components, we literally started two years beforehand just laying the groundwork, trying to help people understand this process by explaining how bread is made, how beer is brewed. We took our time to say, this is the simplest form of fermentation, and you can relate to it when we’re doing the same thing to produce the Stevia component. We had some pretty large marketing campaigns around those areas, and I’m taking lessons from that as we do precision fermentation work at the new center. I’m saying, let’s try to put this at a level that people can understand and relate to.”

(See the below infographic for Aimutis’ explanation of the sustainable protein work the new center will tackle.)

Sustainable protein graphic with plant-based proteins, precision fermentation and cell cultivation information
Research at the new Bezos Center for Sustainable Protein at NC State University will encompass work with plant-based proteins, precision fermentation and cell cultivation, according to Bill Aimutis, the center’s co-director and chief operating officer.

His research made its way into premium pet food.

“I’m a dog lover and always have been. And in my former job, I did a lot of work with products for companion animals, mostly dogs, about how we influence the gut microflora. A major pet food company is using an ingredient we discovered for high performance dog food to promote healthy intestinal tracts in highly stressed dogs. So to me, it’s satisfying knowing even outside of protein, I did have another life where I was working looking for bioactive ingredients.”

His work has taken him around the world, many times over.

“My last position before joining NC State was to identify and evaluate novel innovations for the agriculture, food and biotechnology categories. Over my career, I’ve done business in 42 countries on six continents. At one point I traveled more than 200,000 miles annually for work, which is the equivalent of circling the Earth eight times in a year.”

He’s prepared to continue tackling the challenges of protein research as co-director of the new center.

“In my six years here as executive director, the North Carolina Food Innovation Lab has characterized almost 60 proteins. We’ve started to delve into sustainable proteins, primarily plant proteins, as we will with the new center. I kiddingly tell my wife, the only downfall right now is I wish I was about 10 years younger, because I can see another career’s worth of research to do.”

This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.