New tenant adds pop to research campus opening

As the North Carolina Research Campus marked its grand opening Monday, the biotech center that's focused on health and nutrition announced a big-name tenant known for sodas and snacks: PepsiCo.

Campus developer David Murdock, the billionaire owner of Dole Food, said PepsiCo is interested in studying how to make its products healthier, such as improving the nutrition in its juices. Some of PepsiCo's products include Doritos, Gatorade, Tropicana juices and Pepsi beverages.

The deal was disclosed at ceremonies for the opening of the first three buildings at the $1.5 billion Kannapolis campus 30 miles northeast of Charlotte. Hundreds of residents, university leaders, scientists and politicians attended, including U.S. Senate rivals Sen. Elizabeth Dole and state Sen. Kay Hagan, and gubernatorial candidates Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory and Lt. Gov. Bev Purdue.

PepsiCo, which joins Dole Food as the most recognizable private firm at the campus, will occupy a 4,000-square-foot lab. Dr. Mehmood Khan, the company's chief scientific officer, declined to cite the size of the investment or the number of people it will bring.

Murdock is collaborating on the 350-acre campus with eight N.C. universities and has signed 17 private companies.

“If you could feel my heart tremble inside my body, you would understand how excited I am,” Murdock told the crowd. “People from around the world will benefit from the work we are performing here in Kannapolis.”

Murdock, 85, mentioned several times that his wife had died of cancer, and he wanted to use his considerable resources to solve some of the world's health problems. He said he has already invested more than $400 million, and is far from finished.

Only 25 acres of the complex is developed. Murdock also hopes to recruit more companies, and the campus is still far from generating what one consultant predicted would be 30,000 direct and indirect jobs by 2027.

More than $47 million in taxpayer money is committed or anticipated to cover costs for N.C. universities and the community college coming to the campus.

The ceremonies Monday were for the 311,000-square-foot Core Lab, which offers specialty equipment and labs for rent to campus tenants, the UNC Nutrition Research Institute Building and the N.C. State University Fruit and Vegetable Science Institute Building.

Kannapolis City Schools students came to the event with a color guard and marching band. They also presented a $3,000 check for money they collected to be the first donation for the foundation that runs the Core Lab. And they gave Murdock a picture of 3,000 students and staff in the football stadium holding cards to form “NCRC” and “KCS.”

Speakers praised Murdock for buying the former Pillowtex mill, razing it and replacing it with a scientific community. The mill's 2003 closing threw more than 4,000 people out of work locally. Murdock wants the campus to provide high-paying jobs and improve lives through scientific discoveries.

Erskine Bowles, president of the UNC system, cited the doubts that initially greeted Murdock. “People aren't calling us crazy anymore. These facilities prove this research campus is for real.”

Dr. Steven Zeisel, head of the nutrition research institute, predicted that campus discoveries will be used in doctor's offices in five years.

Following speeches and the ribbon cutting, balloons were released and a siren wailed.

At the campus, PepsiCo will focus on biology and nutrition, Khan said. Work also could involve improving crop nutrition and identifying healthier fruits for PepsiCo products, he added.

Murdock is recruiting at least 50 companies, and had met with the chairman of Coca-Cola as well as PepsiCo.

Staff researcher Maria David contributed.