Ray Starling Q&A: Cultivating Business Climate
April 12, 2023
Ray Starling is general counsel of the NC Chamber and president of the NC Chamber Legal Institute. He is also the author of “Farmers vs. Foodies: A Look at the Outside Forces Forging the Future of Farming and Food” and an executive advisor to Aimpoint Research. NCFIL spoke with him about his perspective on the plant-based food industry.
NCFIL: What is your perspective on the state of the food manufacturing sector in North Carolina over the past five years?
Ray Starling (RS): First, let’s look at the state’s big picture. I sit at the NC Chamber. We think about what makes North Carolina’s environment an attractive place for anybody to conduct business or to own or start a business. We focus on how to make more jobs available here. The state is hypercompetitive when it comes to recruiting new business. You can check out the NC Chamber website for an accolades list. We are working with this wind at our back, and that happened with intentionality. Our business environment is currently the envy of the nation.
In the food science space, we are leading the conversation. When it comes to talent, I point to NC State University and their partner peer institutions. We’ve got talent coming out of these schools as well as talent leading programs, like Dr. Bill Aimutis at NCFIL.
The really cool thing about North Carolina’s combination of rural and urban spaces is we can grow and sell the product within the state. We have great farmers as well as onsite consumers. But we do need to focus more on processing in NC; that’s a missing element in this equation.
In our pipeline, we’ve seen an increase in food and beverage partly because of NCFIL.
NCFIL: What role does the NC Chamber play in the food manufacturing space in our state?
While we do focus some on the food manufacturing space, someone has to keep their eye on the overall business environment of North Carolina, ensuring a stable democratic system and business climate. NC Chamber is the only major policy-influencing entity that works across all sectors of the economy, in all three branches of government.
As we think more specifically about the ag industry, thought leadership is heavy on the production side. This is the gap we are trying to fill: we need to be asking who is serving the manufacturers and the entrepreneurs. These questions must be plugged into a statewide or even regional conversation.
NCFIL: How do we more effectively position NC’s food manufacturing sector on the national stage?
We want our state to be famous, yet it takes time. We are doing exactly what we need to be doing: developing a top-notch, best in class food innovation lab is hard to beat. We need leaders who say to entrepreneurs and small businesses we can do that, we can make that happen, we can scale that up. NCFIL does just that for folks trying to do creative work in the plant-based food space.
What are industry leaders currently asking The Chamber as it relates to food? Are you hearing about regulatory needs?
RS: I worry about the regulatory challenges of the food space; therefore, I worry about entrepreneurs having the resources and patience to work through premarket approvals. For anything innovative, it is a thick set of briars to cut through. Entrepreneurs may have the capital, the food scientists, and a need in the market for their product, but navigating as a startup is extraordinarily difficult.
Some regulatory issues arise because the product is new and unique, something we haven't seen before like a meat alternative. But overall the regulatory system is antiquated, and it is behind where market developers are headed. This means smaller players will have a hard time. Of course, we don’t want to sacrifice safety, but regulatory uncertainty holding up the market is the tail wagging the dog.
Do you see specific areas of opportunity or roadblocks to overcome for North Carolina to consider as we enter the next five years?
RS: For opportunity, it is all about growing talent; this is what The Chamber hears from every employer in the state. I heard Tom Barkin, CEO and president of the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank, say that attracting growth over the next 20 years will not be about attracting businesses, it will be about attracting workers. Taking a holistic view of attracting talent, roadblocks include housing and childcare for that talent.
Policy at the state and national level is important. We would love to have a food manufacturing initiative at the NC Chamber, but someone in the space needs to lead that. The Chamber looks forward to continuing its relationship with this subset of the industry.
You can learn more about the NC Chamber’s work with the state’s agriculture and agribusiness here. To learn more about NCFIL’s role in the plant-based food industry, check out NCFIL News.
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