Agriculture technology incubators evolve during pandemic

There’s greater interest in funding food security and agriculture automation

Dave Smardon spoke at the Innovation Expo in Guelph in 2018.
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Global farm technology investment funding hit an all-time high in 2019 of $4.9 billion U.S. According to the 2020 Farm Tech investing report by AgFunder, that’s an increase of 6.8 per cent over the year before, and a rise of 370 per cent since AgFunder first began tracking these statistics in 2012.

And although the report’s authors expect a decline in investment this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis has heightened interested in certain types of innovations in particular, including automation and platforms that can connect farmers and consumers online.

Why it matters: There is significant growth potential in Canada’s agri-food sector, but entrepreneurs and innovators need support to get new ideas and business off the ground.

Ontario has a growing collection of accelerators and incubators – organizations that support start-up businesses particularly with a focus on technology. The province is also home to what is believed to be Canada’s only national commercialization accelerator focused solely on agriculture and agri-food, Bioenterprise Corporation.

According to CEO Dave Smardon, the organization has shifted its focus from start-ups to companies a little further along the commercialization path.

“We’ve moved from doing barebones startups, which are traditionally highly labour intensive to organizations like us, to later-stage startups,” he explained. “The research is done, their technology is completed and they are poised for growth.”

That’s particularly the case in Ontario, where Bioenterprise delivers its SmartGrowth program for small and medium-sized enterprises in the agriculture technology sector specifically to support scale-up and expansion projects. Through a grant from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario, the program provides matching funding of up to $100,000 along with coaching and mentorship support services.

Companies that come to Bioenterprise for support include a lot of digital agriculture and food processing technologies, as well as innovations based in plant or animal sciences. There’s been a shift away from innovations in agricultural-based energy over the years, though.

“The experience of the pandemic has caused greater interest in food security, traceability and technologies that can be used in place of labour,” he says. “Those are all long-term opportunities, but are starting now.”

The pandemic has also accentuated the lack of capital available to early stage companies, with Smardon noting that many angel investors and angel organizations have taken a hiatus from doing deals. That has a direct impact on start-ups, particularly those in need of matching funds to take advantage of opportunities like SmartGrowth. It’s something Bioenterprise hopes to be in a position to address over the next three to six months.

Bioenterprise currently also has offices in Vancouver and in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and through its programs and services, has helped launch more than 1,000 products and created more than 2,600 jobs since its inception in 2003.

Some of its past clients include Vive Crop Protection, Greentronics, Agri-Neo, Soma-Detect and Agri-Brink.

Bioenterprise is now also a hub that supports and is connected to Ontario’s existing innovation ecosystem, which includes Ontario Centres of Excellence and the province’s network of Regional Innovation Centres, like Mars in Toronto, Communitech in Waterloo and Oshawa’s Spark Centre.

Although they don’t specialize in the ag sector like Bioenterprise, some centres do have clients in the agri-food sector. Local Line, an online local food sales and delivery platform, for example, had its start at Communitech.

The Spark Centre is currently home to Korechi Innovations, the company behind a farming and turf care robot called RoamIO.

“We provide incubation space for start-ups, we have an extensive network of industry partners and investors, and we have expert advisors in many areas so we can help start-ups get on their feet,” explains Spark Centre President and CEO Sherry Colbourne.

For Korechi, Colbourne was able to make an introduction to the artificial intelligence centre at Durham College to support further development of its autonomous system. Clients with food innovations can be directed to the nearby Ontario Agri-Food Venture Centre in Colborne, for example.

“The most important thing we do is make connections for people – they don’t know where to go, can’t get people to open the door when they’re so unknown,” she adds.

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