A little over a year ago, a Guelph-based agri-food innovation accelerator set out on a somewhat ambitious quest: to build a national agriculture innovation network.
Bioenterprise had a long-standing history in Ontario of helping start-ups and emerging companies in the agri-food sector along their growth paths, but there was no one-stop-shop at the national level that could offer the same supports in other parts of the country.
Why it matters: The 2017 Barton Report identified the agri-food sector as a pillar of Canada’s economic growth, with the opportunity to become a trusted global leader in food exports. Innovation is key to helping Canada achieve the report’s goals.
“Canada’s agriculture and agri-food innovation ecosystem is highly fragmented and under-funded, and it’s long been our vision to create an environment that is more collaborative, more cooperative, and more national,” says Chief Executive Officer Dave Smardon.
Bioenterprise launched Canada’s Food & Agri-Tech Engine in June 2020, and according to a recently released update on its progress, the Engine has been growing rapidly since then.
As of this month, Bioenterprise has built up a presence in Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia, and the Engine has attracted more than 130 members and partners across the country.
A team of 10 innovation advisers is available to support Canadian entrepreneurs and businesses. More than 50 emerging and growth-oriented companies have received funding, mentorship and business development support through programs like Investing in Business Innovation and SmartGrowth in Ontario, GreenShoots in Nova Scotia, Alberta Yield and Quebec’s AgTech Acceleration Program.
The Engine also includes a francophone innovation collaboration, a Northern Ontario pilot agri-tech hub, and a national science advisory committee with representation from universities, colleges and corporations across Canada.
Dr. Mike Lohuis, vice-president of genetics, research innovation at Semex, is part of that science advisory committee. The livestock genetics industry has been disrupted regularly by new technologies like ovum pickup and in-vitro fertilization IVF, genomic selection and semen sexing.
“It is extremely important for our company to stay at the leading edge of research to prepare for market shifts and capitalize on new research and innovations that could accelerate our business,” he says.
While Canada has done a good job of funding research and generated many prospects for new product development, the country lags in converting that research into successful businesses, he notes. That’s where a cohesive, collaborative network can help Canadian entrepreneurs grow and be successful.
“Helping innovators navigate the difficult pre-commercial stages and build know-how around intellectual property, financing, and market research will pay innumerable benefits to Canada,” he adds.
Dr. Colin Yates is the chair of the Centre for Research and Innovation at Fanshawe College. It’s the institution’s applied research arm that works with companies of all sizes to develop or improve products and services, with a particular focus on food innovation.
He’s also the co-founder of several Ontario start-up businesses, so he has first-hand experience about the challenges emerging entrepreneurs face in getting a new venture off the ground and sees the Engine as a welcome development.
“It’s brilliant. There is a real lack of support for early-stage ag companies. Canada is a risk-averse nation, and we lag behind in investing in core areas like agriculture and resources,” he says. “If you develop a culture and a central place to go, you can develop an environment that is more conducive to receiving investment. There’s a big agriculture environment across Canada, and this kind of network can lead that charge.”
According to Smardon, Bioenterprise plans to continue expanding the Engine by adding more collaborative partnerships and filling critical gaps in the innovation space for food and agri-tech.
“Our services and support will complement the resources already available in the ecosystem and create a significant impact on Canada’s agricultural innovation economy,” he says.