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Nebraska's Innovation Campus celebrates $25 million grant

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About 18 months ago, stuck working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, Craig Buerstatte started thinking about ways the Biden administration could get the communities vying for American Rescue Plan Act money to think outside the box.

The idea Buerstatte and his colleagues came up with was the Build Back Better Regional Challenge, which sought projects aimed at rebuilding regional economies and creating thousands of jobs in industries such as clean energy, next-generation manufacturing and biotechnology.

Last month, the U.S. Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration announced 21 winning projects and a total of $1 billion in funding.

Among those 21 winners — which were chosen from 529 applicants and 60 finalists — was the Heartland Robotics Cluster in Nebraska. The project is being led by Invest Nebraska and includes participation by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Engineering, Northeast Community College, Metro Community College, Nebraska Innovation Studio, the Nebraska Manufacturing Extension Partnership and The Combine.

On Monday, Buerstatte, the Economic Development Administration's deputy assistant secretary for regional affairs, toured Innovation Campus with UNL officials, business representatives and others to learn more about the effort.

"It's a very big investment, not just for the community, but also for EDA," he said, noting that the $1 billion going to the 21 projects is the biggest investment coming from that agency in more than 40 years.

Dan Hoffman, CEO of Invest Nebraska, said the $25 million grant will go to building the infrastructure needed for the effort. The bulk of money is going to build out spaces at UNL, including robotics-related research and teaching spaces in Kiewit Hall, Scott Engineering Center and Splinter Labs and to upgrade Nebraska Innovation Studio’s robotics makers space as well as to develop an automation demonstration space and program for Nebraska manufacturers.

Nearly $8 million will go to Northeast Community College and Metropolitan Community College to help them build out infrastructure and provide training and outreach efforts.

Hoffman said the money will jump-start the creation of the robotics and automation initiative, which is "desperately needed in Nebraska."

"It could take years to do, but now we're going to be ahead of the curve," he said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2647 or molberding@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.

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Business reporter

Matt Olberding is a Lincoln native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been covering business for the Journal Star since 2005.

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