There is a big gap in the innovation pipeline when it comes to the Agri-Food sector. Luckily, the Global Agri-Food Advancement Partnership (GAAP) is ready to fix it. The GAAP is a unique organization that combines an accelerator and incubator facility with funding, expertise and more to help remove barriers for Agri-Food companies so they can innovate, grow and scale nationally and globally.
To find out more about the GAAP and its impact on the Agri-Food sector in Canada, we spoke with the four founding partners of the GAAP: Ag-West Bio, the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) at the University of Saskatchewan, Innovation Place and the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre (Food Centre). Read more about the visionary new partnership.
Ag Tech and Agri-Food Tech is a big focus in Saskatchewan for its potential to significantly impact the tech sector and strengthen the economy here and for Saskatchewan to become an even stronger global leader in the Agri-Food industry. In your opinion, how will the GAAP help support this vision?
AG-WEST BIO: What is truly unique about the GAAP is what it offers to its portfolio companies. As a private venture capital group, it offers equity investments — but the GAAP is so much more beyond capital. Together, the GAAP and its founding partners bring an unrivaled suite of resources, not only in the deep domain expertise each member has in its respective subcategory of the Agri-Food sector, but in the infrastructure, equipment, scale up, training and mentorship that is offered under the GAAP umbrella. By offering a “one stop shop” of investment, infrastructure and resources from industry leaders who have first-hand experience in commercializing technologies and running multinational companies, the GAAP can greatly expedite the path to technology adoption and ultimately help the Agri-Food sector in Canada become more competitive on the global stage by adopting innovation.
INNOVATION PLACE: The GAAP will allow early-stage and rapidly scaling Ag Tech startups to access capital, state of the art facilities and infrastructure, experienced mentors and other scale-up opportunities. Bringing all this together around a connected Ag Tech ecosystem isn’t just unique to Saskatchewan, but it also provides a massive global advantage for startups to get up and running and scale faster than their competition in the market.
FOOD CENTRE: The GAAP will provide a platform for entrepreneurs and companies to establish themselves to begin the process of commercializing new innovation and ideas. When we look at the vast resource and knowledge base we have in the community, co-locating in the GAAP will provide the opportunity for companies to tap into that resource base. The diversity and network of support for these companies will create a unique integration of talent to build upon. Couple this with a strong local science investment environment and additional support programs from both federal and provincial, it has all the right ingredients for success.
GIFS: The GAAP is a national initiative. We're always open to members across Canada to join the GAAP because innovation is a team sport and strong members help us help the companies that we’re designed to support. The GAAP is trying to support two types of companies: (1) new inventions and new innovations that are coming through the technology development process, and (2) existing companies that already have an innovation and are looking to gain access to the North American market. The GAAP will help support and create that kind of customized relationship to make it easy for companies to innovate and succeed.
How is the GAAP different from other Ag Tech accelerators and incubators?
AG-WEST BIO: Traditional accelerators do not work for agriculture and food companies. They offer three-month, generic, one-size-fits-all training and a small amount of capital that may help a software company progress, but it does little to move the needle for Ag Tech companies facing heavy upfront costs and lengthy development timelines. Furthermore, generic advice, while beneficial, can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing if presented as a “catch-all” without the specific knowledge that can only be obtained through deep domain expertise gained through first-hand experience. It can lead companies down the wrong path. Unlike in software, these companies cannot pivot on a dime and it can take years and big dollars to recover.
GAAP takes a completely different approach. We offer maximum flexibility and a tailored and customized approach for every single company we work with. There is no “one-size-fits-all” mentality and we only work with experts, advisors and mentors who bring real world, first-hand experience of commercialization innovation within this sector and associated business achievements. The GAAP has side stepped the rigid and structured three-month cohort models and instead we can house companies for up to four years and we provide customized and tailored solutions coupled with meaningful and impactful investments into the millions. Our model embraces, not ignores, the challenges of bringing innovation to the farmgate and beyond, getting it adopted. We embrace collaboration and work with a global ecosystem to bring innovation to the people that need it.
INNOVATION PLACE: Many incubators and accelerators focus primarily on raising venture capital and mentorship. The GAAP is cranking up the dial on investment opportunities by both offering direct investment from the GAAP itself as well as connections with institutional venture capital and angel investors. They add even more fuel to the fire with ready-to-go facilities and infrastructure that gives a huge speed advantage to their startups instead of time-consuming and costly buildouts. Pairing all this with deep industry connections, sector specific expert mentors, commercial production volume scale-up opportunities all helps to accelerate time to market, increase growth and reduce risk.
FOOD CENTRE: One key difference is that through the partnership it has expanded the scope and reach for companies in the early-stage development. The focus of the GAAP is to support new innovation to commercialization. The GAAP has taken the approach that in order to successfully complete this, you need to have access to the knowledge base and resources that contribute to success. The GAAP’s accelerator looks at how the ecosystem can contribute to this success and has developed a pathway that facilitates the process.
The GAAP is a collaborative partnership between GIFS, Ag-West Bio, Innovation Place and the Food Centre. What individual strength does each of the partners bring to the GAAP?
AG-WEST BIO: Ag-West Bio has been a mainstay of the Agri-Food ecosystem since the early 1980s. It has been investing in early-stage innovation within this sector and has spearheaded the development of major industry initiatives such as Protein Industries Canada. As companies come to the GAAP they will look to connect and network with the existing ecosystem and will need a “guide” as they look to develop robust and synergistic relationships — and this is where Ag-West Bio shines. Ag-West Bio’s expertise in the agriculture domain, and national and international relationships, will provide significant value to portfolio companies as they strive to create meaningful relationships. Additionally, entrepreneurs will require training and personal development. Many of the programs and initiatives offered by Ag-West Bio will be a direct fit for the GAAP’s portfolio companies.
INNOVATION PLACE: Innovation Place brings world-class facilities for the GAAP to house startups while they are in the program, along with flexible and easy pathways to the next step. This includes space to scale up their operations and attract talent with access to the broader Saskatchewan innovation ecosystem and community. Innovation Place is the largest cluster of skilled tech and research talent in Saskatchewan, the epicenter of Canadian agriculture and one of the country’s fastest growing tech regions.
FOOD CENTRE: The Food Centre brings years of experience in new product development and commercialization. Over the years, the Food Centre has successfully assisted companies in commercializing new products. The Food Centres capabilities in product application will be a key success for the GAAP participants in the agri-food space. For most companies coming in, they are producing an ingredient. Our ability to transform that ingredient into a consumer packaged goods (CPG) product will be a key factor for startup companies. This in combination with our wide array of pilot and at scale manufacturing capability will support the early growth stages for companies. Our new Advanced Ingredient Facility will play a key role to assist in developing products from concept stage to pre-manufacturing and product application phases.
GIFS: Our board at GIFS is very supportive of helping drive the innovation pipeline and our mission is to help people to discover, develop and deliver and that develop and deliver is a huge gap in Ag and Food Tech here in Canada and we see the GAAP as being a vehicle to close the gap now. When the GAAP was first proposed by Karen Churchill and Jay Robinson, the synergy for GIFS is we're trying to push technology up to pipeline and Ag-West Bio has been trying to pull it up and bring other people in. So, the best way to do it is to work together. We're pushing and helping move the blocks down the line.
We spoke with Ag-West Bio President and CEO Karen Churchill back in March about the GAAP and she was excited about its potential to alleviate barriers for Agri-Food startups and boost Saskatchewan’s Agri-Food sector in general. Why was tapping into the Agri-Food Tech startup community important for the GAAP and its vision?
AG-WEST BIO: It's important to clarify what we mean when we say Ag Tech. Ag Tech is somewhat of a catch-all term with some cloudiness as to what is actually entails. From the GAAP’s perspective, our focus is on companies that are developing innovations for the Agri-Food sector that offers the end user more than just a database, or collection of data on some form of software or platform. The GAAP focuses on what we call “tangible technologies” which are technologies where digital computational and artificial intelligence may form a fundamental piece of the product’s development; but they are a tool — not an end-use product. The final product is something that can be touched, seen and felt, such as a drought tolerant seed, a new health food product, a hybrid electric combine or a novel animal health vaccine, as a few hypothetical examples.
Understanding this, it is clear to see why Canada has such untapped potential with the sector and a real competitive advantage, outlining the GAAP’s rationale for prioritizing the area. Canada has long been a leader in this specific area of Agri-Food development. Canola was invented right here in Saskatchewan; our farmers manage over 40 per cent of Canada’s cultivated farmland; and Canada’s food manufacturing and processing sector is one of the biggest employers across the country. Globally, Canada’s agri-food sector and the quality of its products have a solid reputation around the world, and its regulatory approval is sought after.
This history means that Canada has built a robust and extensive network and infrastructure, right across the country, of expertise and facilities that specialize within these subcategories. Until the GAAP, most of these entities worked in silos, not cross functionally, and have not leveraged each other’s resources to create a “one plus one is five.” The GAAP recognized the benefits of this opportunity and we are very excited for the organization to break ground right here in Saskatchewan!
INNOVATION PLACE: It takes a village to raise a startup, and even more to raise a startup in the capital- and infrastructure-intensive field of Ag Tech. Startups in the GAAP program not only get to leverage the amazing resources from the GAAP itself, but also the collective experience, talent, infrastructure and energy of the broader Ag and Ag Tech community in Saskatchewan.
FOOD CENTRE: Ag Tech is a growing area for both sustainability and investment. As we continue down the path to increase our value added processing capacity in Western Canada we have to think not only how to use primary ingredients, but look at strategies that can create value from the whole plant. I think the people in our ecosystem have always been forward thinking in this way and not restricted to traditional processes to generate that added value.
GIFS: In other business verticals, like technology or pharmaceuticals, incubators and accelerators work really well in those spaces. They don't work very well in Ag Tech because there are fundamental structural differences. Our timelines are much longer and costs higher because, for example, you need two years of field data to get a registration in Canada. You cannot accelerate or incubate your way past two years of field data and living here in Saskatchewan, we know there's only one shot every year to get a field data result! Also, a pre-competitive space doesn’t exist in the Agri-Food sector and there are challenges moving from that very early stage proof of concept through to a product prototype – and those issues aren’t always technical. The GAAP is proactively addressing these problematic factors in the Agri-Food sector through the founding partners' complementary collaboration to help companies innovate through the risk and help companies establish in and gain access to North America.
What most excites you about the possibilities of the GAAP?
AG-WEST BIO: Oh, where to begin? The whole industry is exciting and the fantastic partners we have and the value we bring, as a consortium, to the companies we hope to serve. If we focus on providing the best value to our portfolio companies as we possibly can, then we will all succeed!
INNOVATION PLACE: We think the GAAP, and the collective effort of its founding partners, can play a critical role in rapidly accelerating growth in the Ag Tech sector not just in Saskatchewan, but also to drive advancements in agriculture globally and change peoples’ lives. We think Ag Tech founders who choose to build their startups in Saskatchewan will have an extremely competitive advantage thanks to the GAAP and the Saskatchewan tech community.
FOOD CENTRE: For us at the Food Centre, it is having that extra resource to drive innovation. Entrepreneurs face a huge challenge to get new products to market and the GAAP will be another tool in the toolbox that can support their journey. You need to have a juncture that brings people and ideas together to really drive the industry. Over time the GAAP will grow into that role and drive success in the area.
GIFS: Helping companies with that innovation challenge advance their technologies with access to expertise infrastructure facilities help push their technology forward!
Anything else to add?
FOOD CENTRE: We’re really proud to be working with the people and organizations involved. This is not an easy task and there is still a steep hill to climb, but in the long run it will put us ahead of the game and attract a new breed of entrepreneurs that we can collaborate with to build a very exciting future for the sector. It is people like Jay Robinson, Karen Churchill and Steven Webb that get out in front and take a leap of faith to start these things. It’s a risk but the opportunities are unmeasurable