“None of Us is as Smart as All of Us” – Agri-Food, AgTech, Food Security, Natural Products Come Together and Talk Innovation

The BC Cleantech Cluster Initiative hosted a roundtable for the agri-food tech industry Nov 6, 2019 at VentureLabs in Vancouver to bring together leaders from industry to discuss a cluster approach to support and scale innovation in BC. To ensure we had an inclusive discussion, we co-organised the session with Vantec, an investment angel group interested in supporting agri-food tech companies, and presentations were provided from Natural Products Canada and the Food Security Taskforce on their respective pan-Canadian and Provincial initiatives.

One of the first notable things about the roundtable event was the number of engaged participants and overall interest in the growing the industry encouraging innovation. As Rick Gagner, an Agri-Food expert and EiR at Foresight put it:

“There was a great turnout today for Agri-food, and Agtech stakeholders. Off to a good start building the ecosystem for startup and early stage companies in this sector and hope to see it grow from here.”

Rick also reminded us that Agri-food is the number one manufacturing industry in BC, underscoring the importance of the work.

Food Security Task Force

Another notable part of the roundtable that further emphasized the importance of agri-food in BC was the opening presentation by the Food Security Taskforce. Selena Basi from the Premier’s office provided an overview of their plans and overall mandate. Their report, including an action plan and goals will be available at the Pacific Ag Show in January – so stay tuned.

The discussion centred around 3 main themes:

1. Creating the conditions for agri-food technology innovation to thrive,

2. Supporting marketing of the sector, and

3. Collaboration is key to success.

Theme 1: Creating the conditions for agri-food technology innovation to thrive

The agri-food industry in BC is strong, and there was an overall agreement that there is a window of opportunity opening up for innovation, technology and growth in the sector. The first theme that emerged from the discussion centred around what conditions/strengths we have in BC that we could leverage in order for this industry to thrive.

Supportive Political Environment

First, there’s a supportive political environment at all levels, with the importance of innovation in agriculture being recognized as a necessary part of the fight against climate change through mitigation and adaptation initiatives.

Tech Hub/AgTech Hub

Second, there are a number of great companies innovating in agtech here in BC, (e.g. TerrameraAIS, and others), across a range of fields such as AI, robotics, genomics, precision agriculture/sensors, micronutrients, data analytics, etc. This, combined with the Digital Supercluster initiative means there’s a growing digital/programming expertise in the region. With British Columbia becoming known as Tech Hub overall, there’s an opportunity to leverage that deep domain knowledge to become an AgTech hub as well.

Supportive Ecosystem & Diverse Markets

In addition to innovative companies, there is a strong, supportive ecosystem for agri-food tech. There is a great deal of food innovation and applied research in the processing sector with a new Food Innovation Centre, the BC Food Security Task ForceNatural Products Canada, multiple sub-sector based industry associations (BC Dairy Association, BC Agriculture CouncilBC Landscape and Horticulture Association, etc, ) as well as a large number of SMEs with a real scope for more collaboration.

BC also has significant commodity diversity due to our variety of unique bio-climates throughout the region. Not only does this give us a variety of products to sell, our location ensures we are uniquely positioned for access to markets along the Cascadia Corridor and Asia.

With such a supportive environment, there was discussion around shifting out mindset and thinking bigger – we should aim for big investments and bolder goals.

How to Support this Sector: Ideas & Discussion Points

The discussion also reviewed what participants’ ideas were about how to support the sector better, and how to improve innovation paths, and how agrifood tech can help in achieving Canada’s environmental and GHG reduction goals.

* More Capital – The lack of Canadian sufficient capital to scale up companies, especially for unproven technologies was discussed. Not only was there a lack, it was also felt the funding that is available is fragmented, and some industries (like aquaculture) fall between the cracks.

* Support Talent & Expand Markets– Talent retention is difficult, and there are pressures in the labour market in general. Cost of living and real estate costs in BC make it hard to find and keep talent, and immigration programs are not stable.

There should be wide support for mentoring and business acceleration programs for startups, scale up companies, and international trade relationships – to attract both companies and skilled talent to the province. For example, we could develop exchange opportunities through Provincial Nominee Program with countries such as Israel, Switzerland, the Netherlands, (who have innovative agrifood tech markets) and encourage similar global programs.

* Programs or Strategies to Attract & Grow Large Corporations – Western Canada needs large corporate entities (like McCains, or Irving Group in Eastern Canada) to drive exports and innovation.

* Longer Term, More Holistic Policies – Policy should take a more holistic and longer term approach across the board – the regulatory environment is suboptimal for new types of food innovation.

* Land Usage: Availability of Land was seen as a barrier – innovators need land for pilot projects and testing at a commercial scale, and there is a lack of processing manufacturing and lab space in urban areas, such as Metro Vancouver.

* Government Support for Entrepreneurship/Innovation – The government can adapt some innovative funding programs to de-risk innovation, and build innovation capacity in the local ecosystem. For example, there’s a program from the Swiss government where they identified expertise gaps in their ecosystem, and based on those gaps, the government will cover the airfare and salary of an Executive in Residence with specific sector expertise to work intensely with the innovative company.

On the policy side, there was a suggestion to make agri-food an economic priority, and expand the Ministry of Agriculture in BC.

On the federal side, there was a suggestion that the Pest Management Regulation Agency could move from Health Canada to the agriculture and agri-food portfolio.

Theme 2: Support Marketing of the Sector

The roundtable event also included a presentation by Shelley King, CEO, of Natural Products Canada.

Natural Products Canada is Canada’s Centre of Excellence for Commercialization and Research of natural products, and acts as a commercialization ecosystem for bringing validated natural products to market. Natural products are defined as products created from any biological molecule derived from a biological source, and is an important segment of the growing agrifood tech industry. Natural products include nutriceuticals, feed ingredients, functional foods/protein ingredients, etc..

While Natural Products Canada is a good example of an organization that is telling the story of agtech innovation in Canada, it was agreed that we need more marketing of the sector in BC in order to attract talent, investment and innovative companies to the province.

BC is a leader in food safety, and in meeting sustainability objectives, and we have good news stories about innovation in BC, (e.g. TerrameraLucent Biosciences) and those stories should be told.

As Mike Manion, EiR at Foresight said “Glad to see Natural Products Canada actively involved in this event as they have many resources for our agri-food clients going forward”.

Theme 3: Collaboration is key to success.

Networks, Ecosystems & Clusters

As noted above, there was agreement that while we have a well developed ecosystem around agriculture, agtech and agri-food in BC, it is also seen as fragmented. There is an opportunity for ecosystem development and an ecosystem manager – a group who can help coordinate efforts, information and networks, events, linkages, among agtech, but also across the province and regionally.

For example, agtech should be linked into the Digital Supercluster for a data driven approach, and the Protein Supercluster in the prairies (as well as the Natural Products Canada cluster noted above).

Collaboration is the key to growth and to solving the challenges facing the industry:

“There are so many aspects to supporting companies in these innovative areas. This was a great opportunity to understand each others’ strengths and identify the gaps that need to be filled. We look forward to further collaboration to help BC’s burgeoning ag-tech and cleantech sectors reach their full potential.”   (Shelley King, CEO, Natural Products Canada)

“None of Us is as Smart as All of Us”

The above quote is from management and business expert Ken Blanchard, and to me, it sums up the overall feeling from the event – that while there are barriers and issues to overcome, if we want to build a visionary, innovative agtech industry – the type of industry that will sustainably feed our population and mitigate pollution and climate change – then we will have to join forces and do it together.

And given the dedication and passion of the people in the room, it seemed there was a willingness to do just that and build the future we want to see.