Ag-West Bio helps fuel agri-food industry

Saskatchewan’s agri‐food sector reached record numbers in 2022, with total exports reaching $18.5 billion. The province remains on track to reach its goal of $20 billion by 2030, as set out in the provincial government’s Growth Plan 2030.

Long roots

The province’s long‐standing commitment to the agri‐food sector is readily apparent. A prime example is evidenced in Ag‐West Bio, a not‐for‐profit, membership‐based company founded in 1989 with a mandate to help move research to market and grow bio‐business in the province.

“Back in the late 1980s, Saskatchewan was emerging as an ag‐biotech hot spot, and the government at the time believed an organization was needed to help accelerate the sector,” says Dr. Karen Churchill, Ag‐West Bio’s president and CEO. “Many trends have come through the sector over the years: crop biotechnology; nutraceuticals; bioproducts; biofuels; biologicals; and plant proteins. Ag‐West has seen them all.”

The organization has not only seen these trends; it has helped nurture and build expertise within the province to help members capitalize on these trends.

Ag‐West Bio remains just as relevant today.

“Ag‐West continues to offer business support to start‐ups, such as advice and guidance, and direct investments,” says Churchill. “We strive to know everyone involved in the industry so that we can be the connector. We seek to educate the sector on key issues and topics, and we create initiatives when we see that the ecosystem is lacking a key element.”

Seeds of change

Ag‐West Bio has spearheaded many significant initiatives over time, including: Global Agri‐Food Advancement Part­nership (GAAP), which supports early and rapid growth‐stage companies within all areas of agriculture and food; Diverse Field Crops Cluster (DFCC), which focuses on high‐potential emerging crops to increase acreage and economic value; and Prairie Food Link, an industry‐led cluster that offers companies and entrepreneurs opportunities to gather for informal discussions and networking, while building connections for the food community.

“Prairie Food Link, in particular, has great potential for benefiting food ingredient and processing companies,” says Churchill. “Business is built on relationships. Seasoned CEOs are willing to share their hard‐earned knowledge with entrepreneurs — giving start‐ups and small companies a huge boost. And we have partnerships well beyond our borders.”

Industry bounty

Throughout its history, Ag‐West Bio has played a signif­icant role for many small start‐ups that have since become major players. Take the example of Brent Zettl, currently the president and CEO of Zyus Life Sciences. Back in the early 1990s, Zettl was the founder of a start‐up called Prairie Plant Systems. He has said that his company may not have survived if not for the support of Ag‐West Bio. Prairie Plant Systems eventually became CanniMed, which was acquired for $1.1B in 2018.

Philom Bios was another early Ag‐West Bio investee. The company developed the world’s first phosphorous inoculant for crops. It was acquired by Novozymes Biologicals in 2007.

And the successes continue to this day.

Smart Earth Camelina, a current investee company, is making great strides in the development and marketing of camelina — an oilseed crop with great potential, both for its healthy properties and because it has great drought‐tolerance. Ag‐West Bio led this company’s initial investment round which was critical to it securing the capital it needed to execute its growth plans.

Ag‐West Bio more recently invested in Proxima Research & Development, an early‐stage bioscience company based in Saskatoon that is developing a novel technology for the livestock industry which naturally enhances muscle mass, carcass yield, and feed conversion efficiency to improve the sustainability and profitability of animal‐based protein production.

In addition to this investment, Ag‐West Bio introduced Proxima to four industry partners/agencies (Saskatchewan Beef, Chicken Farmers of Saskatchewan, Prairie Swine Center, and Innovation Saskatchewan), while also playing a key role in getting the company admitted into the GAAP accelerator program (access to laboratory space and train­ing). So far, Ag‐West Bio’s investment has been leveraged to raise nearly three times its initial amount.

“In general, Ag‐West Bio aims to support four compa­nies a year with direct investment,” says Churchill. “On an annual basis, we offer commercialization guidance and pathfinding support to over 20 companies.”

Bang for the buck

In fact, an Economic Impact Assessment completed by a third‐party in 2022 determined that Ag‐West Bio plays a pivotal role in the province’s agri‐food sector. The assessment concluded that the total economic impact of Ag‐West Bio investments from 2012‐2022 was around $243 million. It also found that the province receives economic gains of $122 for every $1 invested by Ag‐West Bio.

“Between 2012 and 2022, an estimated $120 million in leveraged funding has been secured, in large part due to our investments,” says Churchill. “During that same period, Ag‐West Bio’s research cluster leadership contributed to the attainment of $212 million in new research funding, the attraction of global research and thought leaders, and the establishment of Saskatoon as the Western Canada node of Natural Products Canada (NPC), a National Centre of Excellence.”

Within that time, Ag‐West Bio also developed the proposal that led to the creation of Protein Industries Canada (PIC), one of Canada’s “superclusters.” PIC’s activities are promising to have a huge impact on Western Canada’s agri‐food sector.

Rooted in science

Churchill describes Ag‐West Bio as the “connector” in agri‐food innovation — getting the right parties together, along with the resources required to do the job.

Ag‐West Bio’s success lies in its ability to adapt — to react to new trends for the benefit of its members. And its long history provides for an unparalleled depth of knowledge and understanding of the industry.

“It’s important to know what happened in the past to make good decisions for the future,” says Churchill.

New trends continue to emerge. And the company continues to prepare the way for members — and industry — to succeed.

“Currently, we’re seeing a renewed interest in biologicals,” says Churchill. “Fermentation is also garnering huge interest, and synthetic biology is emerging.”

Although the science behind these emerging trends can be exciting for all the parties involved, Churchill cautions against leaving the public behind.

“We have to keep focused on the hearts and minds of consumers,” she says. “We can’t take our foot off the pedal. We’re doing all these wonderful things but if consumers aren’t willing to accept them, it’s a loss for society. We have to keep trying to educate and make science accessible to every person.”

A field day of potential

By all appearances, Saskatchewan’s total agri‐food exports will meet the government’s goal of reaching $20 billion by 2030.

And Ag‐West Bio will have played an important role in this achievement. In so doing, the company will have set the groundwork for the sector’s continued success in the years and decades ahead.

“I’ve no doubt Ag‐West Bio will look very different in 2030 and in 2040 but one thing for sure, we’ll still be here supporting our members — wherever they take us,” concludes Churchill.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2024 edition of Western Food Processor magazine.
Photo: WFP cover featured Saskatchewan’s Minister of Agriculture and Ag-West Bio president & CEO Karen Churchill
Photo credit: Ag-West Bio

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