A new leader for Saskatchewan’s bioscience industry association

Posted on March 11, 2020

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Karen Churchill doesn’t hesitate when asked why she wanted to be president and CEO of Ag-West Bio.

“I truly thought, ‘this is my chance to contribute to agriculture in Saskatchewan, to make a difference, to have direct influence on programs and policies that can help agriculture.’ It was kind of a dream.”

The ‘dream job’ entails a packed calendar and foot-to-the-floor pace, but the calm, soft-spoken woman takes it in stride. After three months in the position and countless meetings with the “who’s who” of Saskatchewan’s bioscience sector, she is getting her feet under her and working to fully comprehend the long history and current role of the organization. 

Churchill comes to her new job equipped with a strong background in both science and management. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Agriculture and Master of Science (Crop Science) from the University of Saskatchewan, followed by a PhD from the University of Minnesota. Her career has given her experience in food product development, crop research strategies, and regulations. Before joining Ag-West, Churchill was Director of Research and Market Support for Cereals Canada. 

Ag-West Bio activities include commercialization of small and medium enterprises, business development, community building and public outreach. Churchill says even though she served as a board member in the past, the range of the organization's endeavors still surprised her. “When you consider that we are meant to help support the whole bioscience community—that is a big community doing a lot of different things. You start with wanting to know a lot of the details until you know enough that you can focus on a higher level.” 

An immediate priority is to fully understand how all Ag-West’s activities fit into the strategic plan, as well as the bigger picture of how they align with the provincial government’s Growth Plan. “We have to be very ‘outcomes’ focused and show people the value of our meetings and activities,” she says. 

Steering the organization and deciding on where to focus is a big job, and Churchill says it’s a work in progress; but she believes it’s important to have a balance between building community and the commercialization activities. “Personally, I will have to focus on the community. It is a big community and the organizations all have strategies of their own. It takes some work to bring them together.” 

A current trend in the province is value added processing. In the past, Ag-West Bio spent a lot of time supporting production agriculture. Saskatchewan is known for developing and growing quality grains, oilseeds and pulses, which are shipped to countries around the world. Now, says Churchill, we need to spend an equal amount of time adding value to those commodities by turning them into ingredients and products. However, she notes that Ag-West still has a broad innovation mandate. 

“It comes to a balance, because those small bioscience companies, they’re the innovators. Innovation is going to come from places that you don’t expect, so you have to cover the whole scope.”

Churchill says Saskatchewan’s ag-bioscience sector is full of both challenges and opportunities. 

“We have a number of advantages: we produce the most crops, and we are the biggest agri-food cluster in Canada. However, it’s a challenge to make people aware of what is available here.” 

Stiff competition comes from the United States, where companies often have an easier regulatory path, and a lot of incentives. “It’s a friendlier commercialization environment in the US than it is here,” says Churchill. At the same time, she notes that global opportunities are our best opportunities, and the United States is our biggest customer. 

Churchill says that to expand our influence globally, partnering with other organizations, such as Saskatchewan Trade and Export Development and Global Affairs Canada, will be important. Protein Industries Canada is another important partner, especially since that organization is also working on developing an ecosystem “and that, of course, is a specialty of Ag-West Bio,” she notes.

In the whirlwind of the past few months, Churchill has met with many entrepreneurs, and she finds this to be one of the most rewarding aspects of the job. “When you talk to people who are passionate about what they do, it just energizes you.”