Ag-West Bio Supports Future Agri-Food Leaders

Karen Churchill, president and CEO of Ag-West Bio predicts that Saskatchewan is going to be a world leader in the agri-food sector. “We have the knowledge and the experience, and now we’re going to have investment attraction,” she says. “I fully expect us to hit the federal and provincial targets in being a world leader in agriculture.”

Both the Saskatchewan and Canadian governments have set ambitious targets for the agriculture sector, like growing Saskatchewan’s agri-food exports to $20 billion by 2030.

While Saskatchewan has been a leader in crop development and production, a key issue for the agri-food sector is translating agricultural research into commercial products within the province — and making the world aware of our strengths. “We are about the fifth-largest exporter of food globally, but you can go to Europe and no one has heard of Saskatchewan,” says Churchill.

An unexpected effect of the pandemic is increased consumer awareness of Canadian food systems and interest in innovative technologies in Saskatchewan’s agri-food sector. “This kind of attention is absolutely perfect,” says Churchill. “It’s exactly what the industry needs because we’ve always wanted the connection to the consumer. It’s an exciting time for us.”

Helping Grow Saskatchewan's Biobusiness Industry for Over 30 Years

Ag-West Bio, a tenant at Innovation Place in Saskatoon, is Saskatchewan’s bioscience industry association and has been helping grow biobusiness in the province for over 30 years.

From the early days, the list of Ag-West Bio’s initiatives is impressive. The organization attracted numerous companies to Saskatchewan and also invested in homegrown startups that gained success. Just two examples are Philom Bios, now Novozymes BioAg, and Prairie Plants Systems affiliate CanniMed Therapeutics, which was acquired by Aurora Cannabis. More recent endeavors include contributing to the creation of Protein Industries Canada and the Diverse Field Crops Cluster. New programs at Ag-West Bio are helping the agri-food sector move faster and could increase awareness on the global stage.

Last year, with the help of a funding boost from Brent Zettl, CEO of ZYUS Life Sciences, Ag-West Bio relaunched the Agricultural Bioscience Innovation Centre (ABIC), a charitable organization that focuses on agricultural bioscience education and training. The ABIC offerings include a training program called Beyond Entrepreneurship, and the ABIC Speaker Series featuring bioscience and agribusiness leaders.

Churchill is pleased to reveal the names of the two ABIC speakers lined up for this year: Curtis Frank, president and COO of Maple Leaf Foods is presenting an online lecture on April 21 and in the fall Dr. Jennifer Doudna, co-creator of CRISPR and Nobel Laureate is scheduled for a virtual fireside chat on Sept. 21.

Agri-food Accelerator and Innovation Series Will Help Sector Thrive

Two future programs are set to influence the Saskatchewan's agri-food sector both culturally and economically: the Ag-West Bio Boffins Innovation Series, a collaboration with Innovation Place; and the Global Agri-food Advancement Partnership (GAAP), also in partnership with Innovation Place as well as the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) and the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre.

The Boffins Innovation Series gets back to brainstorming basics. The local Strategic Discussion Group (led by Ag-West Bio) will meet at Boffins, and informal events will be hosted on all kinds of topics — from synthetic biology to drone technology and what’s new in soil science to name a few examples. Ag-West Bio will also be looking for partners to co-host some of the events.

“We want to bring groups together that are interested in exploring and creating new ideas,” says Churchill. While the pandemic is preventing large gatherings the facility will be used for hybrid events that follow pandemic protocols. Churchill looks forward to when the program can bring large groups together at Boffins.

GAAP will be a one of a kind in all of North America. It’s more than an accelerator: it will serve as a crucial soft-landing incubator for agri-food companies — right here at Innovation Place in Saskatoon.

“Agri-food startups have unique challenges in the early stages and have a significant amount of overhead. It also takes time to get on the path to full-scale commercialization,” says Churchill. “We’re able to support these companies by using Innovation Place’s greenhouses, labs and offices.”

Ag-West Bio will provide companies with what Churchill describes as a concierge service, helping them with networking, training, pathfinding and financial investment.

“This is going to give businesses a huge leg up,” says Churchill. “Approximately 80 per cent of startup companies that receive this type of support are likely to be successful over 5 years — which is much higher than entrepreneurs who go it on their own.”

This is great news, since GAAP’s goal is to translate its target investment of $20 million and support for 10 companies into tangible businesses on the Prairies — a boost for Saskatchewan’s agri-food sector in general.

With the addition of these programs among the numerous supports for agri-food companies in this province, Saskatchewan becoming a known world leader in agri-food is in the future. “This is a chance for us to get our message out there and for people to be interested in investing here,” says Churchill.

“Ag-West is here to facilitate and foster partnerships and connections, because to really capitalize on this opportunity, we're going to have to work as a team within the province and leverage all of the strengths and knowledge that each of us bring. We need to step up our game — and we are.”

Read more about Ag-West Bio in its Meet the Tenant profile.

— March 15, 2021