Innovation is a Team Sport: How Saskatchewan’s Agri-Value Ecosystem is Growing

Innovation Place, Saskatoon
Innovation Place, Saskatoon

Getting into value-add agriculture is not for the faint of heart. While the rewards can be significant, the space is complex—often requiring years of research, labyrinths of regulation, significant investments of time and money, and numerous steps to navigate towards achieving commercialization and scale. It’s a daunting space for even the mightiest among us.

“There are gaps and challenges that make innovation in the ag and food system difficult, including an ecosystem that tends to be dispersed, with key players often working in silos, or at least semi-independently,” says Dr. Steven Webb, executive director and CEO at the Global Institute for Food Security.

But a network of industry-led supports has grown up in Saskatchewan over the past three decades or so that today provides a unique value proposition to a growing and hungry world.

“I grew up here in Saskatchewan, and I left for many years. But as an agronomist and a food scientist, I was attracted back because Saskatchewan really is an agricultural hub, not only for primary production but also R&D capacity,” says Dr. Karen Churchill, president and CEO of Ag-West Bio.

By leveraging each other’s strengths, everyone working in this space aims to make agricultural value-add innovation in Saskatchewan into a global force. The result is something uniquely Saskatchewanian.

Dr. Shannon Hood-Niefer, vice president of innovation at the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre Inc. (Food Centre) says they work with essentially three types of innovators: larger companies with their own food scientists; researchers or chefs who have food science knowledge and need help with the business side; and entrepreneurs who find a market gap and have good business sense but need research and development.

“We’re here to reduce risk in this space that an entrepreneur or food company needs to negotiate and navigate,” says Hood-Niefer.

At the Food Centre, companies at every stage—from startups to established food product or ingredient companies – have access to incubation suites, including the the Food Centre’s extrusion facilities (an extruder can make all kinds of flours into all kinds of shapes—think breakfast cereals or snack foods, like loops, puffs and crisps) and expertise. Here, a company can develop innovative ingredients to best position a product for maximum value extraction, or find support for navigating regulation and compliance. Plus, they can do small-scale manufacturing.

“It makes every day super fun because you never know what you’re gonna get,” says Hood-Niefer.

The growing number of Saskatchewan value-added ag businesses launching and scaling in the province owe some part of their success to this business and investment-friendly ecosystem.

“We’re a small province in population, but with huge production capacity, which means we can’t eat everything we produce,” says Churchill. “If you have this huge production base, you have to figure out how to do all these things. It sparks innovation.”

One of these innovators is Ulivit (pronounced You-Live-It), a “scrappy Saskatchewan startup, creating Canadian made plant-based food with sustainable Canadian crops such as chickpeas, lentils, dry peas, dry beans.” The company has created superfood bars and a unique meat and tofu alternative out of fava beans and chickpeas—which they call Protein 2.0.

Founder Laura Gustafson first encountered pulses while dropping in on a few nutrition classes at the University of Saskatchewan. She did some research and fell in love with these nutrition and protein powerhouses.

“I quit my super cushy day job and jumped full force into being an entrepreneur,” says Gustafson. “Luckily, I had no idea what I was doing because had I known what it takes, I don’t think I would have ever done it! But I absolutely love it and wish I would have gotten started earlier.”

Gustafson says she and her business partner, Carla Gustafson (her sister), chose to start the business in the province for various reasons. The University of Saskatchewan has been researching plant-based proteins for decades, and a considerable amount of pulses are grown here. But Gustafson also credits the support ecosystem that has grown up here in the province.

“It’s really cool to be at the epicentre—pretty much of the world—for pulses,” says Gustafson. “The talent and the resources and everything. They’re literally holding our hands and helping us dig in to be successful. So it’s a really cool ecosystem for sure.”

Some companies tap into research from the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) or the University of Saskatchewan. Others benefit from the greenhouse space available from the science park at Innovation Place. A growing number are using the services of the Food Centre for food processing and ingredient development. And a significant number of startups access investment, networking, and business support from Ag-West Bio. Like Ulivit, many will tap into most of these and benefit not only from the direct support, but also from the networking opportunities these entities create.

“Innovation is a team sport. All of us need to work together,” Webb said during his opening statement at the Future Food Tech’s Alternative Protein Summit.

This team mentality’s impact seems to have created a culture where encouragement and collaboration are recurring themes, not only amongst the support network but also between the individual entrepreneurs.

“We can go a lot farther together than we can on our own,” says Gustafson. “It’s more fun to partner up and listen to mentors and learn from them, and then be able to pass on the learnings to the newbies.”

The amount of support available is substantial, and it’s getting even better. A recent example is the Global Agri-food Advancement Partnership (GAAP).

Churchill says GAAP is a partnership between Ag-West Bio, GIFS, the Food Centre and Innovation Place, and “a broader collaboration of public and industry members that recognize the need and the opportunity for a non-traditional investment vehicle.” The partnership includes a multi-million dollar investment fund coupled with a unique combination of accelerator services.

“The Ag-West Bio niche has always been very early stage, where there’s an investment gap,” says Churchill. “With GAAP, we’ve pulled together a partnership that offers sector-specific experience, a combination of skills, capability, infrastructure, expertise, not just funding.”

This collaborative mindset is shared, and overall there’s an awareness that no one entity will see this through on their own.

“[If] we can extract full value from grain, any grain or all of them, this is the place to do it,” says Hood-Niefer. “We need to stake Saskatchewan’s claim in food manufacturing and ingredient processing, because we have a lot of expertise, both in academia and the not-for-profit sectors, like ourselves, Ag-West Bio, and the Global Institute of Food Security, and industry. We’re building up the ingredient industry, and innovation and invention is a team sport.”