Saskatchewan, meet the Bas-St-Laurent

A serene landscape of the Bas-St-Laurent. Photo by Stephanie Boudreau, director general, Quebec Peat Moss Producers Association - APTHQ.

The Bas-St-Laurent: Where knowledge is vast, and innovation is a way of life.

Industry West is always proud to promote Saskatchewan’s global leadership in agricultural biotechnology, the highly integrated research community, expertise in crop development, plant-based protein, animal genetics and so much more. Last year, provincial exports to the ASEAN region amounted to more than $1.2 billion, surpassing all the provinces. As we add to our value-added export growth, it’s clear that innovation rules the roost.

Knowledge is power. And it’s so true, as someone once said, that knowledge shared is power multiplied.

Let knowledge in, go where few others have dared to go. Build bridges.

And that makes us all stronger, more competitive. With that in mind, Industry West is highlighting trailblazer regions and companies from coast to coast to coast. Innovative centers across this country we can all cooperate with. That we can partner with.

But we have to get to know them first.

Salut, comment ça va?

Autumn colours, Bas-St-Laurent. Photo by Patric Nadeau and provided by Tourisme Riviere Du Loup.

Saskatchewan, meet the Bas-St-Laurent, Que., a place where innovation is part of the genetic DNA. Where thinking ‘outside the box’ is not only a far-out belief system but a mechanism built into the educational and research institutions that lay at the heart of companies and products that are real game changers.

Here there are inclusive work environments and strong relationships built on communities with shared values of collaboration and teamwork. Sound familiar Saskatchewan?

When you first visit the region and take in the serene landscapes nestled alongside the magnificent St. Lawrence estuary (63 per cent of the 200,000 population live in rural communities) and breathe in the briny salt air, or just wander the historic towns and villages of the region, it’s hard to imagine the spirit of science just below the surface. Or the hundreds of fine researchers who live there, a place where the whales and marine creatures create a paradise for tourists—and, oh yes, did we mention the sunsets are only second to those of Hawaii, according to National Geographic?

Not just a pretty face

In the autumn issue of Business Worldwide Magazine, we find the winners of their 20 most Innovative companies award. Probiosphere is one of these.

Pierre Naider Fanfan, the visionary biotechnology scientist who created it in 2015, built his business in Rivière-du-Loup, a lovely small city that houses great science and entrepreneurship, and is now the focus of some of the world’s most innovative thinkers. Fanfan’s work into the impact of wastewater treatment on the environment led to his commitment to protect life in any form. Probiosphere has become a leading light in the world of white biotechnology.

When asked why he has built his business in the Rivière-du-Loup, Fanfan started his career with Premier Tech, headquartered in Rivière-du-Loup and now active in 28 countries. The company has developed world-renowned peat moss harvesting processes and unique mixes incorporating growing media, biocontrols and biostimulants for the agriculture and horticulture industry in North America and Europe. A leader in flexible packaging, the company is leveraging the full potential of robotics and automation for its clients in the nutrition, agriculture, organics and industrial sectors.

“Can we apply the same spirit of cooperation between centers of innovation across the country,” I ask.

“Canada is a great country in terms of knowledge,” Fanfan says. “But we need to build bridges between important research centers and learn more from each other as Canadians. We will be a stronger nation by working together.”

Join the team

Innovative vertical farming installed in the marketplace. Photo provided by Pierre Boulanger.

Pierre Boulanger would agree. As one of the three founders of Inno-3B, a highly scalable new generation vertical farming technology using automation and digitalization in a closed-loop environment, he is grateful to the “many visionary organizations that helped us along the road” he said in a recent interview. “We are here because of the collaborative efforts that were nurtured along the way with our many partners in the region,” he says. We all have the same dream of shrinking our carbon footprint, along with the objectives of extreme energy efficiency and industry-leading plant yield.

Building the future

When I entered Notre Dame College (a private high school) in Rivière-du-Loup, majestically situated in the foothills overlooking the vast estuary, I was, like many visitors, overwhelmed by the beauty of the place. The director general, Guy April, reflected on the over 50 longstanding skills and trades that will become obsolete due to enormous technological change. “In preparing our students for new realities, our college focuses on Design Thinking,” he explains. “It’s at the core of our programs in science, technology, and robotics.” It’s all about learning how to question assumptions and tackle problems through creative thinking. Challenging assumptions and building new prototypes is what education in the Bas-Saint-Laurent is all about.

At the CEGEP (publicly funded colleges unique to Quebec) Rivière-du-Loup we find a hotbed of research activity and its highly regarded Living Labs (Llio) or Fab Labs are concrete proof as to why. The Fab Labs bring teams of students, researchers, and entrepreneurs together in a digital manufacturing lab that focuses on creative intelligence and social innovation in encouraging participants to think outside the box.

In fact, the well-respected Research Infosource which ranks the top 50 research colleges across Canada in 2020, singled out three science campuses in the Bas-St-Laurent. The CEGEP de La Pocatière, the CEGEP de Rimouski and CEGEP de Rivière-du-Loup. Naturally, Saskatchewan Polytechnic was in good company as part of the glorious 50.

“We have come a long way in research,” René Gingras, director general of the CEGEP de Rivière-du-Loup explains. “To be ranked among the top 50 research colleges is not only a great honor, but a signal that our efforts are bearing fruit. The hard work and innovative spirit shown by the staff of the Llio and our research group in biotechnologies (GREB) contributes substantially to the growth of businesses and organizations in our region. As we build a knowledge ecosystem here, we hope to become real trailblazers, not only in Quebec, but well outside our borders.”

As innovation hubs, these colleges in the Bas-St-Laurent, and throughout Quebec are helping students build their futures in the public square.

Often, they cooperate with employers like Lepage Millwork of Rivière-du-Loup, a manufacturer of fine windows and doors made with the craftsmanship of generations of experts immersed in the rich woodworking traditions of the region. Today, the company exports throughout the eastern United States, Ontario, and the Maritime region.

“We like to introduce students to our work. The younger generation brings new value to our culture here:” François-Xavier Bonneville, the general manager told me. “This is a community where, sure we believe in competing for high stakes globally, and we will fight hard to win, but for us, cooperation is the key to our success here in the Bas-St-Laurent.”

“As we rebuild our company brain, we are getting a solid foundation to increase robotization and overcome some of the challenges brought by labour shortages,” he says. “Structured data will help us bring more value to our customers, while empowering our teams to go further.”

Two sides of the same coin

Research into mycotechnology. Photo provided by Biopterre.

Saskatchewan is well-known for our sense of community and openness to cooperation. Much of the bioscience community is clustered around Innovation Place at the University of Saskatchewan, anchored by many prominent
research institutions.

But let’s look at sharing some of that magic. And take some notes on what the gifted researchers and scientists at Biopterre are doing. Nestled in the lovely little town of La Pocatière, in the lovely Kamouraska region, Biopterre’s mission is to contribute to regional development by increasing the competitiveness of companies in the bioresource sector.

As Pierre Boulanger put it, Biopterre was instrumental in offering the levers to assist us in pushing our technology forward. This has been a very successful partnership but is only one example of how a diverse network of thousands of scientists and entrepreneurs large and small, find kindred spirits in this innovative ecosystem.

Quebec accounts for about 25 per cent of the production of peat moss in Canada, and due to the location of the peat industry in the Bas-St-Laurent, there has been a lengthy cooperation with the science and research done there. As Stéphanie Boudreau, director-general of the Quebec Peat Moss Producers Association (APTHQ), said in a recent interview, some of the biggest restored sites in the world are in the Bas-St-Laurent, not to speak of the oldest. From the collaboration between industry and regional research centers, a cluster on peat and substrate was created, of which Biopterre is a part.

The activities of the cluster act directly with its members through structuring projects that bring people together.

A natural boon to horticulturalists across the board, the remarkable ability of peat moss to efficiently manage water and hold on to nutrients is what makes it a vital resource for quality consistency for growers across the board.

Because of these qualities, Asha Hingorani, president of the Canadian Spaghnum Peat Moss Association explained, we can regard our remarkable peatlands as crucial in the broader goal of promoting Food Security, at the top of the list of the United Nations sustainable goals. In fact, during the pandemic, it was clear that peat moss was seen as an essential food service by growers across the board, particularly in the USA who buy up 90 per cent of the production.

“Collaboration between industry and research centers has led to new opportunities for our region,” said Benoit Cayer, director of economic development for the Ville de Rivière-du-Loup in a recent conversation. The expertise developed by Premier Tech and its business groups and thought leaders over the years, particularly in biotechnology, has led to the production of mycotechnology and a wealth of agricultural and horticultural applications. In plain language, the humble mushroom, which has a fascinating underground association with plants, is used to create value-added products for the agri-food industry, and in solutions for the bio-energy industry.

But who would have imagined even a decade ago that harnessing the power of mushrooms in the struggle to de-pollute contaminated soils and toxic wastes, as well as in the global, sustained efforts to curb drought would have become one of the great technological achievements of our time.

We must remember that much of the early research in mycotechnology evolved from the interests of the peat moss industry in the Bas-St-Laurent. It was in this innovative region that we learned the humble mushroom is and always will be part of the remarkable underground ecosystem that is such a friend to mankind.

Growing together

We are all on this journey together, Canada. Let’s share the magic.

Building Innovative Ecosystems