Business & Real Estate

Candymaker Mars commits millions to food research at UC Davis

Candy manufacturing giant Mars Inc. said Wednesday it will commit at least $40 million to food-related research at UC Davis in a deal that would support a food institute that’s expected to be built in Sacramento.

The collaboration with Mars deepens a relationship with the food and candy conglomerate that goes back decades. It will fund a new UC Davis program called the Innovation Institute for Food and Health. The institute will become part of the World Food Center, a fledgling think tank on food issues that university officials have compared to the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Mars said it will commit at least $40 million over 10 years to the new institute, while the university will contribute at least $20 million over the same period.

Currently based at the Davis campus, the World Food Center is expected to move east and become the anchor tenant of a “third campus” somewhere in the Sacramento area in the coming years. However, the money from Mars will be used for research, not for building a campus, said Andy Fell, a spokesman for the University of California, Davis.

“This is idea and innovation money,” he said.

The idea behind the Mars collaboration is to deliver “big-impact, Silicon Valley-type breakthroughs in food, agriculture and health,” according to an announcement by the university.

Mars has been at the forefront of supporting research that investigates the potential health benefits of cocoa-related products. Among other things, some studies have shown that cocoa can protect against heart disease. Some critics have said companies such as Mars are pushing these studies to deflect concerns about obesity and other issues related to sugar consumption.

But UC Davis officials said it welcomes Mars’ funding.

“They do care about nutrition,” said Roger Beachy, executive director of the World Food Center. “I applaud Mars for realizing they can play a role in finding solutions.”

The university has worked with Mars on food-related research for the past 40 years. Among other things, the candymaker worked with Davis scientists in 2010 on sequencing the DNA of cacao, the seeds from which cocoa and chocolate are made.

The ties go beyond that. The McLean, Va., company’s chief science officer, Harold Schmitz, is a senior scholar in management at UC Davis’ Graduate School of Management. A UC Davis nutrition professor, Carl Keen, occupies the Mars Family Endowed Chair in developmental nutrition.

Schmitz said the new collaboration “goes beyond a sponsored research agreement” and will pull together experts from the law school, business school and other fields to examine ways of turning scientific breakthroughs into commercially viable products.

While the company is probably best known for M&M’s, Snickers and other chocolate candies, it also owns Wrigley chewing gum, Pedigree pet foods and other brands.

“We want to expand this fantastic relationship” with the university, Schmitz said.

UC Davis’ plan for the “third campus” remains in the preliminary stage. The World Food Center, devoted to research and policy issues, would be just part of the complex. Other components would include a school of population and public health, as well as clinics for treating patients with nutrition-related issues. The university is continuing to study cost and financing and has said it would probably take 20 years to bring the project to complete fruition.

Linda P.B. Katehi, the university’s chancellor, has said multiple locations are under consideration, including the former railyard on the northern edge of downtown Sacramento.

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