Over the last 20 years the agricultural ecosystem in Saskatchewan has developed with a focus on distributing Saskatchewan’s research results and food technologies to the world. As a result of building capacity in research, production and product development, the province has attracted international attention.
Ag-West Bio President and CEO Karen Churchill says Saskatchewan has long been a powerhouse in primary agricultural production and agri-value is the logical progression. “We need to fully utilize what we produce, and export more processed ingredients, finished food and bioproducts.”
The world has a growing need for what Saskatchewan has to offer: sustainable agriculture production and agri-value products. To capitalize on this, Ag-West Bio, the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS), the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre (Food Centre), Innovation Place, and private sector partners have joined forces to create the Global Agri-Food Advancement Partnership (GAAP).
GAAP is an agri-food business incubator designed to provide a soft landing for earlystage technology and rapid growth stage companies within all areas of agriculture and food, and from anywhere in the world. “It not only provides a soft landing for companies looking to expand into Canada, but also fantastic programs for Canadian companies looking to expand into overseas markets,” Churchill says.
“This is going to give businesses a huge leg up,” she adds. “Approximately 80 per cent of start-up companies that receive this type of support are likely to be successful over five years—which is much higher than entrepreneurs who go it on their own.” Why Saskatchewan? Penny McCall, Assistant Deputy Minister, Regulatory and Innovation in the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture says this province is the natural place to develop field-to-fork products.
“Saskatchewan is a leader when it comes to value-added agriculture. Our value-added sector has doubled over the last 15 years, from $2.3 billion to an estimated $5.6 billion, and we look forward to even more growth.”
McCall outlines Saskatchewan’s strengths for building the agri-value industry as three-fold:
- Our farmers and ranchers and the abundance of diverse quality crops they produce;
- Research and innovation, which is a thread that ties together the entire value chain from seed genetics to production systems, to processing and ingredient innovations; and
- The people behind the partners in this cluster, at the University of Saskatchewan, the Food Centre, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Saskatoon Research and Development Centre, GIFS and Ag-West Bio.
“I would say the heart of the cluster, that keeps it beating, is Ag-West Bio. These people bring passion and vision to what they do, they truly believe in the opportunities, and that attracts like-minded people,” McCall says.
Stepping up innovation performance
Agriculture accounts for almost one-third of Saskatchewan’s provincial economy. When faced with the challenges of COVID-19, the sector has remained resilient—illustrating that Saskatchewan’s agricultural advantage will be a key driver of post-pandemic economic recovery. Canada still has some growing to do and Ag-West Bio wants to assist with agricultural innovation. “Canada’s innovation performance is under-achieving with a less than impressive track record. We’re ranked ninth in research dollars spent, but 30th in outcomes achieved, and 60th in innovation efficiency,” Churchill says.
Ag-West Bio’s partners are eager to support innovation in agri-food, through programs like GAAP. Steven Webb, CEO and Executive Director at GIFS says GAAP aligns with his organization’s mandate to spur innovation in the agri-food sector. “Ag-West is trying to pull opportunities up the innovation pipeline and at GIFS we are trying to push innovations up the innovation pipeline, so we both have important roles to play.”
Meeting the specific needs of agri-value start-ups
When compared to other industries, ag technology start-ups face unique challenges. GAAP is designed to address and resolve those challenges, which include longer development timelines and complex regulatory pathways and market frameworks.
“Unlike other industries, there is no pre-competitive space in the agri-food market,” Webb says. “Challenges of scale come up right away in agri-food. You may have excellent technology, but if you can’t scale it, you can’t bring it to the marketplace.”
As a business incubator focusing on agrifood, GAAP offers:
- customized relationships of one to three years (longer than typical incubators),
- investments of up to $500,000,
- a focus on advancing the technology through the innovation pipeline,
- leveraging the strengths of Saskatchewan’s ag-innovation ecosystem to commercialize, agricultural technology,
- addressing scale-up opportunities head on.
GAAP combines physical infrastructure at Innovation Place (greenhouses, lab and office space), food technology support at the Food Centre, marketplace analysis, and access to investors. Agri-value start-ups will be able to go from concept to production all in one place.
Webb says there’s no region in the world that has as much to offer as Saskatchewan: infrastructure, capacity, and the ability to move from the lab bench to the field to the plate.
“People from other places come here and they are stunned by how much we have to offer the world in terms of our ability to innovate, partner and bring forward tools and technologies. It’s time to do a better job of advertising that.”
Innovation to solve the “Grand Challenge”
While innovation success can be measured in a variety of ways—from patents, to licenses, new company start-ups, commercialization, and job creation—agriculture is one of the industries most affected by global issues such as climate change, and the industry in which innovation at every level can have a global impact.
Webb says agriculture is part of the solution, not part of the problem, and innovation can accelerate those solutions. “It has to be economically sustainable, environmentally sustainable and socially accepted. In Canada we can have all three. Ag and food can help Canada not only recover from COVID-19 but also address some of the bigger commitments we’ve set up around greenhouse gases. It’s a fact. We shouldn’t apologize for it.”
Dan Prefontaine, president of the Food Centre, sees GAAP as a way to fast-track technologies that solve global problems. “The GAAP program is raising our level of technology. If we want to be leaders in an industry, we need an ecosystem to put together all the pieces and solve the grand challenges like greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.”
What is GAAP?
The Global Agri-Food Partnership (GAAP) is a new entity resulting from collaboration between Ag-West Bio, the Global Institute of Food Security, the Agri-Food Innovation Centre, Innovation Place, and private sector partners. GAAP was created to support early and rapid growth stage companies within all areas of agriculture and food.
GAAP combines the benefits of significant investment capital (up to $500,000), long-term incubation in a world-class facility (up to three years, with access to laboratories, greenhouses, and offices), along with guidance and training from sector-specific experts.
- Early-stage technology companies – companies working on promising disruptive technologies in the early stages of development (post proof of concept) with application in agriculture, food, or food processing.
- Rapid growth stage companies – companies that have already demonstrated large scale commercial application for their technology; often they have been successful in securing a considerable amount of investment, and in many cases, they are already generating revenue.
In most instances these companies are located and operating outside of Canada or North America (but not exclusively) and have traction and or success in overseas markets. GAAP allows them to access the North American marketplace with lower entry costs, reduce capital expenditure, a tailed concierge services, and an expedited path to market.
GAAP can increase the success rate of portfolio companies, strengthen the ecosystem, and build a foundation of success, even when venture capital investment may be lacking within the sector. GAAP offers a novel platform designed to address the unique challenges of agri-food companies and technology developers during the star-up/expansion phase. Benefits include:
- Access to state-of-the-art greenhouses, laboratories, and office space for up to three years: This means portfolio companies do not have to spend money on renting, operating, and maintaining such facilities and infrastructure. Instead, they can allocate their capital towards innovation and commercialization building tangible value.
- Up to $500,000 in investment capital: Many early-stage companies have limited access to capital, in part, due to high upfront costs and a long timeline to market entry, and revenue generation typical in this sector. By providing significant investment we enable the most promising companies to focus on technology progression and market adoption.
- Commercial volume scale-up opportunities: Most early-stage and rapid growth stage companies encounter considerable hurdles when looking at mass production. Many face the daunting task of financing their own build, along with operation and maintenance. GAAP provides scale up opportunities, offsetting the need for capital.
- Training and Mentorship: GAAP provides mentorship from sector-specific experts who provide firsthand advice on business development, regulatory pathway, product development, fund-raising, marketing, logistics, export, and more. Entrepreneurs can also access training on specialized equipment (such as qCPR). All this helps companies avoid costly and time-consuming mistakes, expediting the path to market and lowering the capital requirements.
In addition to its founding partners, GAAP has and continues to work with other global leading organizations, corporations, and institutions to leverage synergies both across Canada and internationally. Through bilateral agreements, GAAP not only provides a landing for companies looking to expand into Canada, but also fantastic programs for Canadian companies looking to expand into overseas markets.
Photo credit: Innovation Place