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Alberta Yield: Growing the next crop of Calgary tech

When you think of Calgary or Alberta as a tech hub, does that image include farms or livestock?

Maybe not. But it should.

As Calgary’s economy continues its evolution, opportunities to marry the past with the future are becoming clear. In a 2020 Alberta government report, it showed the agri-food sector as a $9.2 billion contributor to the province’s annual gross domestic product.

In a recent interview on RealAg Live, Calgary Economic Development President and CEO Mary Moran said there’s $18.5 billion worth of investment waiting in advanced tech across all of Alberta’s economic sectors.

She said that the fastest growth and adoption was in Alberta’s agriculture industry.

What does it need to harness that potential? Moran said coordination and collaboration.

That’s happening now in Calgary’s tech sector. A partnership between Platform Calgary, Bioenterprise and TEC Edmonton, through Western Economic Diversification Canada and Alberta Innovates, will begin delivering the Alberta Yield program.

The purpose is to deliver the same support and incubation for Alberta’s agriculture tech starts ups as it does to those in other sectors.

According to Kevin Dahl, advisor with Platform Calgary, this plan has been in the works for about 18 months. Up to this point, Dahl admits there hadn’t been a great deal of focus on early-stage tech in Alberta’s agriculture industry.  So, the partners got together to fix that.

“They identified that this early-stage support for entrepreneurs was something that could really be valuable,” Dahl said.

The impact of agri-tech

Mike McGee, director of innovation with Bioenterprise, said there several catalysts for pushing agriculture towards tech advances. 

He said population growth, climate change, availability of arable land, quality of and access to water –  even food waste – is forcing the sector find efficient ways to deliver more and better. McGee said Canadian farmers have always been innovators; they’ve been working with a colder climate and shorter growing season for hundreds of years.

“All these sort of macro issues are really driving a lot of the need for change, right down to the farm gate level and into consumer packaged goods,” said McGee.

Darrell Petras, vice president of business development with TEC Edmonton said the challenge of feeding a growing world population and doing it in a responsible way begs for ongoing tech advances.

“I look at all of these scenarios, and I see them as opportunities,” said Petras.

Petras said they’re seeing a lot of advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence being applied in other sectors, but he sees a fit in agriculture. In fact, Petras said the turnaround from concept to commercialization is often quicker to turnaround in agriculture – compared with say, the health field.

He said some of the tech we see more mainstream today – like GPS – first got its legs in agriculture.

The Alberta Yield program

The Alberta Yield program is modeled after Platform Calgary’s popular Junction Program, with some differences. It provides the building blocks for early-stage start-ups so they can go from concept to business. That’s what they call the cohort stage.

One of the things they realized, Dahl said, was that many start-up applicants vary in stage of development. For those groups further along in their process, more towards the commercialization or scaling up stage, they have a one-on-one stream with mentors.

They’ve also got a bench to pilot to scale program. It’s different in the ag sector in that it can’t just be an app on a phone. There’s often a practical application that goes along with it.

“A lot of the technologies are bigger scale; they need to be proven in a lab first. Then, you need to run a pilot project maybe on one farm, make sure it works there, and then you have to scale it up to get it into thousands of farms across Canada and the United States,” Dahl said.

Providing the same supportive incubation infrastructure in the agriculture space is key to sprouting further growth. It’s the same support as seen in other sectors.

“What’s unique about our model is that we’re really focusing on bringing in the expertise that comes from that value chain and helping those companies meet whatever their milestones might be,” said Petras.

So far, the demand has been overwhelming. The Alberta Yield cohort was limited to 15 for the first one, which launched March 1.  There were more than 40 companies that applied.

Dahl said they could have selected most of the companies and they’ll probably have many of them apply again.

Big potential in Calgary – and across Alberta

Whether it’s in seeding, feeding, tracking or traceability, the tech applications available in agriculture are many, said McGee.

He added that agriculture post-secondary programs at places like Olds College and Lakeland College make this an ideal incubation spot for agri-tech.

“How do we foster the growth of more of these ag-tech, food tech technologies to create jobs and to build businesses that can grow to, who knows, 20, 30, 40 $50 million companies employing more Albertans,” he said.

Dahl said venture capital groups in North America recognize the potential in agriculture technology. He said a lot of the agtech falls under the clean tech sector, too. When you’re improving yields or reducing the need for tractors to hit the field, or the need for overuse of fertilizers.

“The technology needed to allow us to increase capacity of our farms is huge. There’s going to be a ton of big winners, especially in Western Canada,” said Dahl.

“You look at some of those companies, and they’re already on track. They may not be household names, but they will be in the future in the next few years.  They’re really shaping the way that agriculture is moving into the next phase, which is rapidly scaling up to support our growing population.”