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Alberta agri-food sector gets a boost with launch of new research and innovation network

Mark Lowey
June 11, 2020

A new $108.5-million research and innovation network of technology and agri-food companies, universities, colleges and research institutions is poised to start operating by the end of June.

The Canadian Agri-Food Automation and Intelligence Network (CAAIN) is focused on creating and integrating automated and digitized solutions in Canada’s agri-food sector, interim network CEO Cornelia Kreplin told Alberta Innovates’ Inventures Unbound virtual conference, held June 3 and 4.

“CAAIN will connect agri-food and technology businesses with not-for-profit and academic research providers to address specific opportunities, problems and threats that face the agri-food sector,” said Kreplin, who’s also an executive director at Alberta Innovates.

Eight core partners, including Alberta Innovates, Olds College in southern Alberta, and the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre based in Ontario developed CAAIN. The network also includes 61 companies (ranging from multinationals like McDonalds and Cargill to Canadian SMEs) and 11 academic institutions.

Industry is contributing $59 million to the network, while $49.5 million is coming from Innovation, Science and Economic Development’s Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF). CAAIN is one of two agri-food networks that were successfully funded through SIF's Collaborative Technology Development and Demonstration stream.

The other winner is the Canadian Food Innovators Network, which is focused on the food processing sector. It will receive $30 million in SIF funding, with an additional $20 million provided by industry.

Both networks will collaborate, Kreplin said. CAAIN also will work with three of Canada’s innovation superclusters: Protein Industries Canada, the Digital Technologies Supercluster, and Scale AI.

CAAIN’s projects will focus on using techniques in artificial intelligence, advanced sensor technologies, hyperspectral imaging and blockchain applications to increase the productivity and competitiveness of agri-food producers, Kreplin said. CAAIN will reimburse up to 50% of project costs.

The network also will support the development of a “smart farm” platform, built around Olds College’s Smart Farm R&D initiative. This platform will be utilized to build a pan-Canadian network of smart farms where companies can test and scale their technologies under field conditions, Kreplin said.

Earlier this month, the Olds College Smart Farm received $5.1 million toward its Smart Agriculture Applied Research Program. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Resource Council of Canada contributed $2 million, and the Canada Foundation for Innovation invested $945,867 for new research infrastructure. Eight industry partners committed cash and in-kind contributions totalling nearly $2.8 million.

Alberta invests $40 million in agriculture, agri-food and forestry innovation

The Inventures conference also highlighted Emissions Reduction Alberta’s (ERA) new Food, Farming and Forestry Challenge, which offers $40 million to accelerate technology innovation in the province’s agriculture, agri-food, fibre and forestry sectors.

“Our mandate at ERA is to improve the cost and carbon competitiveness of all sectors,” said Steve MacDonald, CEO of ERA. “At this time of global uncertainty, we are taking bold action to accelerate technology-led innovation that ensures these key industries can grow sustainably.”

The $40 million will assist farmers, ranchers, industry and innovators as they work to ensure sustainable food and fibre supplies and navigate the economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jason Nixon, Alberta’s minister of environment and parks, said in announcing the funding. This will lead to lower costs in the production and processing of food and fibre, and leverage nature-based solutions and other activities that sequester carbon from the atmosphere, he said.

ERA will fund up to $5 million per project and up to 50% of total project costs.

In 2018, the agriculture and forestry sectors employed more than 100,000 Albertans. The province’s agri-food exports reached a record $11.6 billion, while forest products exports were $4.2 billion.

These sectors also represent a significant opportunity for utilizing technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In 2017, Alberta emitted over 43 million tonnes of CO2e from agricultural, agri-food, and forestry operations combined — more than 28% of Canada’s total emissions from these sectors.

ERA worked with leaders in agriculture, agri-food and forestry to design the funding challenge. Ideas for innovation included creating value from agricultural and forest waste, nutrient management, automation and digitization of operations, genomics, applications of alternative energy, zero-carbon seeding, monitoring and detection technologies, nature based-solutions, and more.

Alberta “changing its approach” to attract investment

Tanya Fir, Alberta’s minister of economic development, trade and tourism, told Inventures that the UCP government knows technology and innovation drive the world’s fastest-growing economies. “We are changing our approach to attract investment in Alberta’s early-stage companies,” she said.

Since October last year, the Alberta Enterprise Corporation’s venture capital partners have invested $54 million in Alberta tech companies, Fir noted. In recent months, Alberta Innovates has invested $57 million in research and innovation, including in health care, the resource sector, startups, entrepreneurs and post-secondary institutions, she said.

In December 2019, Fir created the Innovation Capital Working Group to provide recommendations on how to attract capital for early-stage companies. The government has had the expert panel’s recommendations for more than three months.

In May, more than 550 members of Alberta’s technology and innovation ecosystem called on the government to release and act on those recommendations.

But Fir said that Alberta’s 12-member Economic Recovery Council, chaired by University of Calgary economist Jack Mintz, is still examining the report, to ensure it informs the province’s broader technology and innovation strategy and supports economic recovery.

“Our government is considering our next steps and I hope to share those soon,” Fir said.

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