Building a resilient ecosystem and commercializing ag-bioscience innovations – one connection at a time.
Saskatchewan’s ag innovation ecosystem is expanding and gaining resiliency. Government, non-profits and local businesses have long been solving ag-related problems, advancing technology and offering financial support to early-stage companies. But now there is a greater focus on something Saskatchewan people do naturally: building community.
Ag-West Bio CEO Karen Churchill says, “This sector is incredibly diverse and there are so many opportunities to connect across the entire supply chain: from genetics to the farmgate, from supply and distribution to the family dinner table.”
The end of 2022 heralded the rebranding of the Saskatoon Food and IngredientProcessing Cluster, now Prairie FoodLink, which is led by a steering committee of established CEOs, emerging startups, government officials and retail executives, and managed through Ag-West Bio. Prairie Food Link represents the entire agri-food value chain and offers companies and entrepreneurs opportunities to gather for informal discussions and networking.
Leaders in Saskatchewan’s agri-food sector collectively see the value of leveraging the province’s unique geographic, political and social strengths. Devin Dubois, VP Legal and Regulatory at Blue Sky Hemp Ventures, and member of the Prairie Food Link Steering Committee says, “We’re here in Saskatchewan for a reason. We’re here because we can grow this crop more economically here than anywhere else in the world. The small and mid-sized businesses are based here because of our geographical advantage. In this geography, we should be friendly with each other in leveraging that. It makes sense – the same technologies apply to a wide range of crops. We can remain in a silo, but there’s more opportunity if we go beyond that silo.”
Churchill says, “Saskatchewan’s strength is in the way we embrace the entrepreneur, the startup, the people with passion and great ideas. That willingness of this community to build each other up is the ‘secret sauce’ of Prairie Food Link.”
Strengthening technologies with practical applications
A mix of formalized programs, government policies and opportunities for connection are creating an environment that supports practical and applied solutions that directly benefit growers and manufacturers in Saskatchewan.
The Global Agri-Food Advancement Partnership (GAAP) is filling an important void in innovation and international collaboration that supports the Canadian agri-food industry.
The GAAP, now a year old, is a long-term incubator that provides lab and greenhouse space, tailored programming, and meaningful investment for local startups as well as for international, growth-stage companies looking to expand into Canada. The Navigate program provides travel funding for international companies to come to Saskatchewan.
Jay Robinson, GAAP CEO says, “Through our Navigate program, we offer investment in companies that already have market traction and are bringing tangible, sectorspecific technologies to the marketplace. It covers a broad spectrum of end-user value-targeting technologies that improve on-farm production while minimizing the environmental footprint as well as food technologies that look to address sustainability while offering superior quality and economics.
The team that we’ve assembled around GAAP have all built and sold companies in these applied technology areas – so we have the bumps and scars through experience.” He adds, “We’re close to the precipice of meaningful change, of new innovations making a difference on a working farm. We get to see the people who use it reap the benefits.”
At Ag-West Bio, every event has a networking component. Churchill says, “There is always someone or some agency in our tailored audiences that can help with business challenges or knows someone who can help, who can brainstorm and create a new idea or improve something that is already out there.”
Mark Pickard, president of InfraReady Products, says, “It’s important for startups to get together with more mature companies and seasoned CEOs. Relationships build community, and from community you can build collaboration and build the industry.”
Shannon Sears, CEO of Bioriginal, says, “You learn from each other – it’s rare that I come back from a Prairie Food Link gathering without having learned something. I wish more leaders would attend. I think they’d find it valuable.”
Dubois says, “I appreciate the opportunity to sit at the table with industry leaders such as Shannon Sears and Mark Pickard. There’s a lot to be learned from local operations. When you’re trying to break into larger markets, it seems like there’s so much more potential when there’s crosstalk between organizations.”
Pickard says, “These challenging times make these conversations more valuable. It creates an environment where startup ideas can be evaluated against the experience of the seasoned CEO. Some people think their problems are unique to them, but seasoned CEOs can see the commonality in the problems. And finding out how others deal with it is hugely valuable. You’re not just out there on your own.”
“We’re here to support our industry to scale globally,” says Churchill, “That means marketing our strengths in food production and getting advice from those who have ‘been there’ so we can identify where we are most likely to achieve success.”
Sharpening Saskatchewan’s competitive edge
The Government of Saskatchewan’s Growth Plan for 2030 has set agri-food sector goals to increase crop and livestock production, increase agriculture value-added revenue, including crushing 75 per cent of the canola and processing 50 per cent of the pulse crops grown in the province, while also increasing agri-food exports to $20 billion.
Paul Johnson, Assistant Deputy Minister, Policy, Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, says, “We are a consistent, stable supplier of high-quality products around the world. We are a reliable trading partner that our customers can trust, and our trade policies are science based, stable and predictable. One of our key strengths is sustainability: new research shows that our crops have the lowest carbon footprint when compared to our international competitors in those same crops. Cluster development, such as with Prairie Food Link, brings businesses in the sector together so they can capitalize on synergies, collaborate on challenges, and collectively address constraints.”
Prairie Food Link may appear to be a very local organization (Pickard jokes that “it succeeds in part because it feels like ‘stopping in’ on people – something that doesn’t happen much anymore”) but members have their eyes on the prize. Dubois states it clearly: “There is no zero-sum game on the local level. It’s a global system.”
Robinson says tapping into global markets may take a good dose of humility and vulnerability: “When we look at taking the agri-food sector to the next level in the province, it’s going to take partnership and collaboration. It takes a lot of humility for people to admit what they are not good at, but that’s how they stay true to their core competencies, and bring in the companies with the strengths we need to develop. The opportunities are global, not local. We need to be honest about our strengths and about who around us can fill the void. If we build a consortium of complementary groups, we will be very competitive.
“It’s vulnerable to show up and show your cards, to not gain an edge for yourself, and instead move the whole group ahead together. It can be a challenge to manage, but the pie is much bigger and makes it worth the effort.” “At Ag-West Bio, we are focused on the agrifood sector with its specific challenges. This isn’t just a job for us – this is our community,” says Churchill.
Photo: iStock Photo
This article is from Ag-West Bio’s 2022-23 Annual Report.
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