Ag-West Bio: 30 years of leadership and vision, strategy and evolution

Posted on July 31, 2019

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Ag-West Bio turned 30 on April 1, 2019. The organization has enjoyed consistent funding from the Government of Saskatchewan since the beginning, which has allowed it to evolve along with the expansion of the bioscience industry and stay relevant to its stakeholders. 

The Ag-West Bio model is one that several other provinces emulate. A number of founding members, along with the current president and CEO, took time to reflect on and celebrate Ag-West Bio’s impact on the bioscience industry in Saskatchewan, and to share their thoughts on what the future may hold. 

A unique and empowering funding model 
Ag-West Bio President and CEO Wilf Keller says the organization is built on a unique funding model. “Most of our funding is operational and comes from government. It is long-term, significant funding, where many other organizations depend on membership fees and funding on a project basis.” 

Grant Devine was Saskatchewan’s premier when the company, then named Ag-West Biotech, was created. He remembers the government’s reasons for committing to the first five years of funding in 1989: “We originally had three reasons to fund Ag-West: we knew the University of Saskatchewan had a solid reputation in genetics and the ag-food world. We thought if we could capitalize on that and tie in a number of people and companies bringing new ideas to ag genetics, we could make two and two be five.” 

The provincial government saw the value of leveraging a three-way partnership with industry and the University’s research capabilities. That, along with the potential for Ag-West Bio to be a reliable source of information to educate the public, made it a valuable investment. 

A visionary concept 
Former board chair Pete Desai remembers: “The original concept was visionary. It was the first organization of its kind supported by the provincial government. That wasn’t—and still isn’t—common. An arm’s length organization with original funding with a four- or five-year sunset clause. Now, 30 years later, it’s still supported by the same entity.” 

“In the early stages, the leadership could see the potential of a technology in its infancy. Murray McLaughlin, first president and CEO, started with an attitude of ‘why not?’ Leadership and vision were the things that created Ag-West as a success story, and they stuck to it.” 

Murray McLaughlin says he was brought to Saskatoon to build a cluster around biotechnology and genetic engineering (also called genetic modification or GM). “We went from three companies to 40 companies in six years,” he recalls. “Big companies like the Royal Bank and Ernst & Young hired accountants and lenders to specialize in biotech. Saskatoon was ahead of the game from a business perspective, with a commitment to supporting start-up companies and attracting business.” Ag-West Bio became an early leader in ag biotech in Canada. 

Evolving with the industry 
While Ag-West Bio was supporting start-ups and building a network of researchers and industry partners, it also worked with government to develop a regulatory framework for genetically engineered crops as part of its early focus on GM, soil biologicals and livestock genetics. An era of commodity surpluses and low prices followed, and the focus shifted toward non-food bioproducts and biofuels. That has since given way again to food as a focus: from genetic research to protein and byproducts, and value-added products. 

An important development in Ag-West Bio’s business structure happened in 2004 when Saskatchewan Bioproducts and Saskatchewan Nutraceutical Network (SNN) were folded in, and the name was changed to Ag-West Bio. Carol Ann Patterson, who became Vice President of Nutraceuticals at that time, says “Saskatchewan Nutraceutical Network didn’t want to lose the industry membership that it had developed, so that was a requirement of collaborating with Ag-West Bio. As a result, Ag-West has retained a membership which represents the breadth of the industry. Ag-West consults with, and is accountable to, its members. It’s important for an organization to have that accountability.” Patterson notes the current trends returning to a health and food focus. 

Keller believes this evolution, in lockstep with the wider trends, has been critical to the company’s success. “Ag-West has evolved with continuous emergence of new technologies and the associated increased knowledge base, from GM to bioproducts to genomics to digital ag and big data. We are reacting to the changes and connecting to new companies all the time. We continue to have community support because we have stayed current.” 

Industry integration 
“Integration of all three industries— bioproducts, genomics research and functional foods—is so important. There is a lot of crossover and byproducts from one that can serve as ingredients for another,” says Patterson. 

McLaughlin is excited about the current focus on multiple industries making use of a whole crop. “It was an exciting time in the 90s, but it’s even more exciting now with recent advances. We’re turning starch coproducts from plant-based protein production into biofuels and biodegradable packaging, all made from the same plant. It’s the same with forest products. We’re asking ‘what can we do with wood besides paper?’ That is the future.” 

Networking: a surprising benefit 
“An important element of success for Ag-West is its networking ability,” says Devine. “They have a library of people who are doing similar research, willing to invest and make connections. I didn’t expect that outcome, but it’s a huge, worldwide network, which is phenomenal for the three sectors. It was a pleasant surprise, and very valuable.” 

As project manager for a new crop cluster led by Ag-West Bio named the Diverse Field Crops Cluster (DFCC), Patterson has direct and current experience with Ag-West Bio’s ability to network and build on collaboration. “Ag-West leads and creates momentum. The team comes up with the ideas and gets the right people together to collaborate. DFCC supports research and development of seven emerging crops: flax, camelina, canaryseed, sunflower, hemp, quinoa and mustard. Ag-West coordinated the effort to get the seven crop groups together—including producers and private industry—to apply for federal funding through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP).” The new cluster has been approved for 15 projects, totaling $24 million between government and industry. 

A strategic approach to the future 
As Wilf Keller approaches the end of his tenure at Ag-West Bio, he reflects on the efforts over the last nine years, working strategically to identify gaps and develop a pan-prairie approach to agricultural innovation. This work included the development of collaborative events such as Breadbasket 2.0 in 2013, as well as the creation of the Protein Industries Canada (PIC) supercluster. 
Pete Desai believes “the future for the organization, besides what it does so well, is to challenge itself to take leadership and expand its strategic vision by aligning similar organizations across Canada. This alignment would create a strong group to advocate for agriculture as part of the solution to a healthy Canada—for humans, animals and the environment.” 

As innovation happens at an even faster pace, one thing is certain: Ag-West Bio will continue to adapt and evolve, as will the networking, collaboration and industry support that has become synonymous with the company. McLaughlin sums it up: “People think a cluster develops because of the science, but the cluster really develops because of the people: organizations agreeing to get on the same train.” 

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Technologies Emerging: Three streams that are revolutionizing agriculture 
From a bird’s eye view to the invisible world beneath our feet, to the ‘minds’ of robots and autonomous machinery, the scope and appearance of agriculture is changing. 
“The quickly growing areas of digital, AI and big data is big,” says Wilf Keller. “We can make smarter decisions along the entire value chain, from the field to a food product’s destination. The future will see an integration of the three key pillars of agricultural engineering, genetic technology and digital technology.” 
“Looking ahead, Ag-West Bio needs to keep an eye on where the puck is going, not where it is right now. Integration will require a lot of cooperation—and cooperation is in our blood.” 

Smart Ag
“Agriculture has always been smart, but now it is becoming digital,” says David Yee, VP of Saskatchewan Operations at PAMI. “We’re excited about the trends that are coming in and how this will change sustainability from an environmental, economic and social standpoint. Farming will always be a human endeavour, and automation will support the stewards of our land in that endeavour.” 

“We see a transition happening, with many changes to conventional farming that will create an entire ecosystem of agriculture, using integrated data to predict pest and weed trends, as an example. Farming machinery will get smaller, farming will become more efficient. Inputs will become significantly lower, because we will be that much more precise. We’re definitely on the path of continuous improvement.” 

Autonomous Implements
The first leg of the race to autonomous agriculture has been won by Dot, an ag-tech company in Emerald Park, SK. Dot’s U-shaped power platform connects to any implement that has been built to be compatible with Dot and completes its mission by following a path that has been determined through field mapping. This spring, a limited release of Dot units were sold to farmers—demonstrating the success of the past three years spent testing and developing the autonomous functions of the unit. “It’s exciting that the first autonomous implements are coming out of Saskatchewan,” says Dot CEO Leah Olson-Friesen. “We are proud of the partnerships we’re building and look forward to working together with a variety of implement manufacturers to enable farmers to spend more of their time focusing on the overall operation of their farms.” 

Drones
Using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, researchers are identifying traits related to yield in canola, lentils and wheat. “If we fly regularly enough, we can quantify the length and intensity of flowering, canopy volume and even count the number of seedheads in a given area,” says Steve Shirtliffe, Crop Phenometrics Platform Project Co-Lead at the U of S Plant Phenotyping and Imaging Research Centre. “We can also identify changes in soil quality over a field. Changes in soil colour is often correlated to levels of soil organic matter, for example.” The next step is to determine how these new phenotypes are heritable and can be used in breeding programs. “We’re still in the first stages of figuring this out. It’s a really interesting research discipline to be involved in— it’s brand new. There’s a lot of excitement in the area right now.” 

Soil Science
Complex interactions between soil infrastructure, the soil microbiome and root systems were once unknown, or merely guessed at. With advances in in situ root imaging, understanding the function of root architecture and the mechanics of nutrient uptake, and DNA profiling of the soil microbiome, researchers will soon meet the goal of identifying and incorporating competitive root traits into plant breeding programs. 

It will take a new level of collaboration across many disciplines to do it, says Leon Kochian, Associate Director of the Global Institute for Food Security. “Agriculture is becoming a big science—it is truly interdisciplinary across biological, physical and mathematical sciences,” he says. “The team we’re building includes computer scientists, computational biologists, x-ray physicists, soil microbiologists, and engineers who can build phenotyping systems using sensors and imaging.” 

Intercropping
Planting multiple crops in the same field takes more research and planning, and challenges the abilities of some conventional machinery. The right combination, however, reduces insect pressures, competes more strongly with weeds, requires fewer inputs and produces higher yields. “When people ask why I intercrop,” says Colin Rosengren of Three Farmers, “I ask them, why doesn’t everyone intercrop?” 
There are some natural planting combinations whose yields speak for themselves. “Flax and chickpea is a no-brainer,” says Rosengren. “In the next five years you won’t see anyone mono-cropping chickpeas. Flax really reduces the disease pressure.” Rosengren is also mixing precision agriculture with intercropping, planting peas in lower, wetter regions and lentils in higher, drier regions, with canola throughout. While a mix of two crops increases yield by 30 per cent, the three-crop mix has shown a 50 per cent higher yield. 

Genetic Technology
CRISPR-based gene editing is revolutionizing genetic technology by simplifying the process. “With CRISPR you can prescribe a mutation in a particular gene of interest and reduce the background noise inherent in classic mutagenesis. It allows you to make precise changes at prescribed places in the genome with predictable effect,” says Kevin Rozwadowski, an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research scientist. 

CRISPR offers several exciting possibilities in the health field as both a discovery tool and in clinical applications. While agricultural research will be able to piggyback off medical discoveries, there are also promising ag-specific applications already underway. “All major crops will benefit from this technology by speeding development of certain traits related to disease resistance, drought tolerance, seed quality, flavour profiles and more. From crops to livestock to clinical applications in humans, the next handful of years is going to see dramatic results from this technology,” says Rozwadowski. 

Food Technologies
Shannon Hood-Niefer, VP Innovation and Technology at the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre says, “The biggest trend in health and wellness right now includes a perception that plant-based foods are healthier, safer and environmentally sustainable.” Food production technology is evolving and expanding choices for consumers through natural modifications such as fermentation and hydrothermal treatments that affect flavour and texture and expand possibilities for ingredients and food products. 

“As our population expands, we’re going to see more focus on functional foods and ensuring we maintain bioactive ingredients through the manufacture of food. We need to know when, where and how to work with active ingredients.” Hood-Niefer believes Saskatchewan has great depth and breadth of skills in terms of value-added agriculture and processing. “It’s time for us to really step up and promote what we can do—we’re more than just primary production.”