More than 30 years ago, the Saskatchewan government had a vision to develop agriculture biotechnology and the bioscience research cluster in the province. Ag-West Bio was part of that vision.
The company was created in 1989 to provide leadership for Saskatchewan’s growing agricultural bioscience sector. The membership-based not-for-profit promotes the commercialization of new technologies, supports start-ups and small companies and works to attract new companies to the province. Ag-West Bio is funded by the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP) program.
The company’s website lists 135 members that range from individuals to multinationals. Agricultural biotechnology, value-added processing, health and nutrition and environmental companies are all represented.
Ag-West Bio’s mission is “accelerating innovation and enabling companies to commercialize research.”
Dr. Karen Churchill, president and CEO of Ag-West Bio says this entails a network of people and organizations involved in research and development (R&D) and providing business advice and financial investment. The company currently has nine staff members to support these goals.
“Our staff represents a continuum, from those with a passion for science and innovation to those who enjoy helping fledging businesses bring their ideas into reality with advice and training. Our commercialization arm contributes funds to make it happen,” says Churchill. “As a team we understand the need for a collaborative innovation network that will help Saskatchewan companies become successful.”
Goals and Expectations
The provincial government’s Saskatchewan Growth Plan 2020 announced significant targets for the agri-value/bioscience sector. These include increased agricultural production, as well as significant increases in value-added processing.
“The government of Saskatchewan has set some very ambitious targets, and they’ve set very clear instructions for Ag-West Bio to both promote the science needed to achieve these goals, and to support the development of new agri-food companies and start-up investments,” says Churchill.
Services and Resources
The company website (www.agwest.sk.ca) includes information about regulations, funding sources, and business services. A blog and an online newsletter (the Bio Bulletin) disseminate industry information for and about members. More than 100 organizations are listed in the Saskatchewan BioScience Resource Guide.
A new resource coming in early 2021 is the AgriSource database which will serve as a link to Saskatchewan’s agriculture value-added sector through listing hundreds of organizations active in the province.
Also under development is a web-based platform to help entrepreneurs in the agri-value space map out and articulate their business ideas. It will include a forum to link entrepreneurs to mentors.
One of the most valuable services Ag-West Bio provides is helping early-stage companies become investment ready. This includes helping entrepreneurs create sound business plans, giving them advice and connecting them with mentors.
Ag-West Bio’s Technology Commercialization Fund offers flexible and patient capital to companies at a stage when risk is too great for traditional capital sources. Companies must meet stringent criteria to qualify. Numerous companies receive advice and support. While only two or three are added to the portfolio each year, going through the rigorous process makes them more qualified for other funding sources. Since inception, Ag-West has made 75 investments in 62 companies.
Connecting with Limited Contact
In a typical year, Ag-West Bio hosts more than 40 networking events, workshops and seminars. When the pandemic hit, in-person events ground to a halt. The company is adapting to the current limitations and continues to serve the community.
“COVID-19 has changed the organization. Although you can’t match face-to-face interaction, we intend to bring scientists and business leaders together to share innovative ideas through targeted, virtual and hybrid events,” says Churchill.
The annual meeting was held online in June. In the fall, the company coordinated numerous online activities during Global Biotech Week. The new Agricultural Biosciences Innovation Centre (ABIC) Speaker Series was launched with Brent Zettl, president and CEO of ZYUS Life Sciences as the first speaker. Plans are in the works for two ABIC Speaker Series events in 2021.
The company also hosted a series of virtual training sessions for entrepreneurs in the agri-value space. An online Agricultural Fractionation 101 workshop is coming up in February 2021.
Economic Recovery and Ag-West Bio Initiatives
Ag-West Bio is collaborating with several partners to explore the idea of an ‘advancement centre’ – a business incubator specifically for agri-value start-ups. It would provide everything from low-cost access to equipment and facilities, to networking, mentorship, partnerships and funding.
“Statistically, companies that go through incubators are more successful than those who go it alone,” says Churchill. “With the right direction and support, start-ups are more likely to reach their potential.”
Churchill says Canada has lagged in agriculture R&D investment over the past 17 years – specifically in converting research into commercial opportunities. Recently, however the federal government has made large-commitments to agricultural innovation – for example, funding the ‘superclusters’ such as the Prairie-based Protein Industries Canada.
“We haven’t had any indications that they will slow down this funding. In fact, it may be the opposite given food security has become a focus during the pandemic.”
“In the past,” Churchill says, “Canadian consumers may have taken the food supply for granted because it always seemed plentiful. Now that they’ve experienced shortages in the grocery stores and heard stories like the ones about farmers have to dump milk because they couldn’t get it to market, they’ve recognized how important this sector is.”
She says the agri-food sector has had to pivot quickly to address value-chain issues and has risen to answer the challenge. For example, Western Economic Diversification Canada just rolled out its Regional Relief and Recovery Fund. The funds are going to 24 not-for-profit organizations “that help local businesses survive and thrive.” Ag-West Bio is one of the organizations; it will use the funds to offer business training.
“I expect we will continue to see support programs continue to foster growth,” says Churchill. “Ag-West Bio will certainly be championing collaborative innovation across the entire agriculture bioscience sector.”
This article was first published in the Winter 2021 edition of Western Food Processor magazine.