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Shrinking Footprints

Local business giant supports N.C. PSI to drive innovation, sustainability in agriculture

N.C. PSI supporter Bob Winston
N.C. PSI supporter Bob Winston

Bob Winston left a big footprint in the hospitality industry. As CEO of Winston Hospitality, Inc., he established one of the first hotel real estate investment trusts in America, built a portfolio of 65 hotels, and started a successful tech company focused on trapping and eliminating one of the most significant issues for hotels today: bedbugs. Winston worked closely with various NC State faculty and students to develop the advanced, AI-based system. 

This was just the most recent in a string of NC State collaborations that began with a simple cold call in 1991, when he contacted the Department of Horticultural Science with questions about  revitalizing his historic 1.9 acre garden. His latest garden is three acres, contains more than 400 plant species, is almost fully self-sustainable, and a frequent case study for students in landscape horticulture and and landscape architecture.

Winston credits NC State for fulfilling his personal and intellectual pursuits, whether it’s growing new businesses or learning about the most sustainable farming practices for his  hobby farm. As a descendent of Jane S. McKimmon, NC State’s pioneer in continuing education – and namesake for the McKimmon Center, it’s only fitting that he would instinctively use the university’s resources to learn and grow. 

Winston would like to see others benefit from the kind of knowledge that fulfilled his life, while also helping to solve some of the largest sustainability issues facing agriculture and society. He views the N.C. Plant Sciences Initiative – which brings together the top minds in academia, government and industry to drive world-class research and innovation through team-based science – as one of the scientific world’s most important efforts for developing sustainable innovations that lower the ag industry’s carbon footprint. 

Winston recently directed a gift to support construction of the NC State University Plant Sciences Building, naming the Winston Family Foundation Study Room in honor of his family and the foundation’s benefactor, the late James H. Winston.

We connected with Winston to learn how NC State has enriched his personal and professional life, his keen interest in sustainability through innovation, and why he says, “When people need a problem solved, they come to NC State.”

You are a leading entrepreneur in the hospitality industry, yet you own a 200-acre farm. Why do you run a farm on top of your other work? 

There’s just something about farms. I wasn’t a farmer growing up, but I was around farming early on. My grandfather, in his later life, was a tobacco farmer who also raised cattle. But for me, it’s a way to reconnect with the land, do something outdoors, and understand firsthand how the latest farming innovations work. Agriculture has tons of science and technology behind it. I’m reading about, learning about, and trying the best methods out there. We’re making our farm a real high-efficiency fun operation. For example, we plant vegetable crops using raised beds with biodegradable plastic mulch. We also use low-impact water solutions, burying all of our lines; and we try some of the latest and best crop cultivars. It’s more for fun and enjoyment, keeping up with and employing the latest technologies and growing new and different varieties of crops. 

What are some of your favorite memories on your grandfather’s farm? 

As kids, we actually spent summers on two different farms. One in New Jersey and one in Johnston County. In New Jersey we used to take our red wagons out in the field and bring back potatoes. We had potatoes in every form you can imagine for weeks on end. In Johnston County, we also ate a lot of watermelons, right out in the field. We went to the ones that weren’t picked, cut them open, and ate the hearts right out of them. I can also remember riding on the tractors with the workers. And when the tractors weren’t running, it was just quiet – wonderfully quiet – walking in the fields and smelling the tobacco. Back then, it was just a different world. It was the essence of being back to nature.

Why did you decide to support the N.C. Plant Sciences Initiative?

In one word: Innovation. It’s a very innovative program, and NC State needs to continue having the facilities that drive their innovation and keep them at the top of the plant sciences; and there are so many areas of innovation that the N.C. PSI will support. It’s across the board. There are a multitude of things that you can do to make farms and crops more efficient: water usage, yield, more pest resistance, and doing things that have less detrimental impact on the environment. It’s all about using technology to better understand your conditions in the field and being able to react to those conditions in a much more efficient way. It’s about putting all those things together to create a better outcome while helping to preserve and sustain our planet. 

From an entrepreneur’s perspective, how do you think the NC State Plant Sciences Building will help foster innovation?

To me one of the most important things about this building is how its operations are set up for innovation. The research groups moving in there won’t be there forever. They’ll be rotated in and out of the Plant Sciences Building over the years. This way, you don’t get stale; you continue to innovate. This building also offers some of the latest, highest-level technologies used in research, which will create many opportunities for innovating in the plant sciences. All of this will drive NC State’s ability to find more efficient ways to help growers produce crops at a lower carbon footprint, feed the world more efficiently, and maintain healthy and sustainable ecosystems to preserve the inhabitants of our earth.

What kinds of innovations would you like to see emerge from N.C. PSI’s team-based research?

I can’t say there’s one specific thing we’re looking for to come out of the N.C. Plant Sciences Initiative.  We’re living in an increasingly technological world, and agriculture is a part of it. We’re interested in anything coming out of this effort that supports new technologies and innovations in agriculture. We’re constantly looking for new innovations and ideas we can build off of. Look at all the companies that were built off of the ideas and innovations of NC State. There’s all kinds of innovations coming from here. 

I was incredibly impressed by how the N.C. PSI made production more efficient for the sweetpotato industry. You can make the argument that the more efficient the plants are themselves at getting a greater output, you can lower the carbon footprint with fewer inputs. That means you use fewer resources, reduce nutrient inputs and have less waste in fuel and of everything.  We must continue to find ways to lower herbicide use through innovation.  It is being done already and will be fun to watch the way it is accomplished.  That’s one of the things I especially find important about the work that NC State’s doing through the N.C. PSI. NC State, UNC, and Duke are the reasons we are who we are in the RTP area.

You’ve said that “when people need a problem solved, they come to NC State.” Why?

If you call and you’re nice about it, the professors at NC State will help you. You just have to know to make the call. Let me give you an example. I cold-called NC State in 1991. I’d just bought a house. It was a very old, historic house in North Carolina that, up until the ‘70s, was a 19-acre garden. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, it was very important in North Carolina. Over the years the land footprint was reduced through land sales, and the earlier gardens were neglected.  I wanted to see if I could bring some of it back to life. 

I called NC State, because that’s where I felt like the talent pool would be. From that call, I met Tracy Traer, a faculty member in the Department of Horticultural Science, with whom I built an incredible relationship. She completed a thorough site analysis of the physical, social and natural attributes of the property and then designed my whole property, preserving the historical and natural character of the site. Tracy and I went on to another property and she has spent 20 years curating it into a fantastic space, covering three acres with over 400 species of plants and some of the most advanced landscape design techniques. It became a place to show students best practices in microclimate design, preserving biodiversity, and creating landscapes that can sustain themselves by capturing the water onsite and maintaining the existing natural systems. 

Tracy is an incredible representative of what it means to work with NC State. I’ve worked with other professors on other projects, personally and as a businessman; and these collaborations are what make life so rich. But again, it’s the talent of NC State’s people and their willingness to make an impact in the community that many people just don’t realize.

How has NC State supported your entrepreneurial efforts?

We recently invented a bedbug trap, and we couldn’t have done it without NC State. The resources at NC State – from testing with all kinds of high-end equipment to look at the science behind what we’re doing, the consultations around working on lures to attract bedbugs, to the electronic design and engineering, everything – it’s been unbelievable. 

The biggest thing out of all of this is NC State’s ability to build a workforce of young, very smart, highly trained students who are on the cutting edge of technology. We could not have created the company we did without the talent pool that NC State offers. Almost all of our younger employees were at NC State, either working on their PhD or Master’s degrees – or undergrads moonlighting after class. So the resources and the ability for us to be successful are directly correlated to having NC State in our area. If our company was Macon, Georgia, for example, we wouldn’t have been successful with launching our product. The talent pool is here in Raleigh for us to do what we wanted to do because of NC State.

Why do you give back?

I’ve been very fortunate to be on the receiving end from NC State for a lot of the things I’ve been able to do with my life, from my farm, to growing a technology company to stop bedbugs, to being involved with the landscape architects at NC State. It’s changed my whole life. I’ve spent 30 years in the highest levels of landscape design because of Tracy Traer,  who walks me through my yard and tells me about plants and what the genus names are and why they grow there. That enriches my life, and it’s all directly connected to NC State.

What higher ed institutions bring to our quality of life is just incredible. Whether you went to this university or not, it’s important to support research efforts that support your quality of life.