Reprinted with permission from the Vincennes Sun-Commercial newspaper

December 14, 2023

The U.S. 41 Industrial Park will see its first significant investment in nearly a decade after officials with the Pantheon on Friday announced the construction of a processing facility that will repurpose food waste from Knox County’s melon industry into biodegradable plastics.

Pantheon officials joined with community leaders and representatives from Knox County Indiana Economic Development at the co-working space to announce the launch of AgroRenew LLC.

With plans to break ground in early 2024, the company has secured land at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Elkorn Road where they plan to build a nearly 200,000-square-foot facility in four phases over the next three years.

When completed, it will represent an $83 million investment, cover more than 20 acres and bring nearly 250 new jobs to Knox County.

Pantheon CEO Nichole Like kicked the celebration off, reminding many of those gathered that it was four years ago — almost to the day — that they came together to celebrate the grand opening of the co-working space.

“We had a shared vision of a vibrant and prosperous Knox County and a mission to inspire and support the growth of entrepreneurism and innovation,” she said, expressing gratitude to city and county elected officials who “invested in people’s hopes, dreams, talents, and hard work.”

“Entrepreneurs solve problems and when you bring people who think that way together in a compelling space that encourages creativity and embraces a can-do spirit,” she said. “It becomes a sort of combustion chamber, sparking innovation, collaboration, and opportunity.”

Like also pointed to the mission statement of the Pantheon’s Ag Tech Committee, which is to “create an agricultural innovation hub to advance community prosperity.”

“And I’m proud to say, I think we’re making good on that mission today.”

AgroRenew LLC is being launched by Evansville residents Brian and Katie Southern.

Brian Southern, a business advisor and entrepreneur, began discussing with Pantheon officials six months ago the opportunities that could be afforded with bio-waste. It’s through those brainstorming sessions with local farmers, he said, that the idea for AgroRenew was born.

“Innovation doesn’t just happen. You can’t force it,” he said. “It comes when you have a bunch of like-minded people looking at a problem or a challenge. It happens when you have an open mind and believe that you can move beyond what is known and look at what is possible.

“And it all happened right here in the Pantheon.”

AgroRenew’s bioplastics manufacturing plant will transform watermelon waste into biodegradable and sustainable bioplastics.

Southern explained that the melon waste will be reduced then blended with other bio-sources to form a resin polymer that will then be sent to plastics manufacturers to be developed into biodegradable plastics.

The U.S. uses more than 300 tons of plastic every year, Southern said, “and as a society we recognize that we should not be doing that.”

“But there has to be good choices for an alternative, and bioplastics is the answer,” he said.

They decided to build their facility here because Knox County is the largest watermelon producer in the State of Indiana, No. 2 in the nation. The bio-source they need will be plentiful, and they will partner with growers in the southern states to expand their harvest season.

Their target crops will be watermelon, cantaloupe, and pumpkin waste, totaling 100 million pounds per season, Southern said.

Once the processing facility is built, the company plans to also establish a Bioplastics Innovation Center next door, a 16,000-square-foot research facility that will sit on 21 acres of experimental crop development; AgroRenew then expects to add an additional 22 science and engineering jobs to their ranks.

Mayor Joe Yochum welcomed Brian and Katie Southern, a food scientist, to Knox County, and expressed overwhelming gratitude for their investment.

“We made an almost $5 million investment in the Pantheon,” he said. “Now we’re getting $83 million in return.

“If there’s a bank around here who wants to give me that on my money?” he said, to which the crowd chuckled.

“Think about the jobs, the number of people coming to our community, the homes that will be built, the kids in our schools, people shopping on Main Street and everywhere else in Knox County. It’s (an investment of) hundreds of millions of dollars.

“This is huge for our community.”