London’s Growing Agri-Food Processing Ecosystem
- There is a large group of individuals, startups, mid-sized companies and large corporations in the agri-food and food processing space that have formed a strong ecosystem in London.
- Traditional manufacturing companies are leveraging Ontario’s strengths in artificial intelligence to innovate with new technology applications on the factory floor.
- Colleges and polytechnics are adapting their programming to meet London’s emerging workforce needs in the cannabis and agri-food industries.
Service providers and incubators should consider moving to London to provide the infrastructure, resources and support required to build out its growing agri-food and food processing sector.
London’s Manufacturing Strengths
I can speak best to the agri-food side of manufacturing and the agri-food processing, because that is more my background and strength. But the simple answer to London is simply location.
It is in close proximity to both border crossings in Ontario and centrally located on some great arteries, being highways 401 and 402. That makes it very attractive for large corporations like Maple Leaf Foods, The Original Cakerie, and other larger corporations that simply need a central location in order to get all the materials they need for their manufacturing or process activities, but also to be able to get that to their markets across the province or other provinces.
The Evolution of London’s Food Processing Ecosystem
What we are seeing right now is this group of individuals, large corporations and very interesting startups all moving to London. There are midsized companies in London, all in the agri-food space and food processing space, and they are coming together saying we need all these resources, we need some support, we need venture capital, we need X, Y, Z and they are starting to realize the potential of this whole group.
“We have a nice spread of start-ups right through to large corporations that can support and demand certain infrastructure needs.”
I think that is what unique right now, is that we have a nice spread of start-ups right through to large corporations that can support and demand certain infrastructure needs.
What we need to happen now is the right group of service providers to settle down in the community to provide that infrastructure, similar to a Communitech in Kitchener-Waterloo. We need a Communitech type model for food processing in London, and that can really solidify what the agri-food and agriculture economy can really do.
We are starting to see that with some service groups, like RH Accelerator in London and the Western Fair. People are starting to come to the table that have unique skillsets and resources to bring but we just need one or two more things to really click and then we really start to see that ecosystem take off and become the Kitchener-Waterloo or Toronto start-up ecosystems—but focused on the agriculture and agri-food processing. It will be a game changer for sure for London.
The Technology Driving the Evolution of London’s Manufacturing Industry
What is really coming to the forefront right now is artificial intelligence (AI) and sensors, particularly Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, and although this is not being adopted broadly at this time, there is a growing trend that this is being incorporated into a lot of new factories. Particularly, the Maple Leaf Food site is going to be the state-of-the-art factory when it comes to London.
What we are actually seeing is a trend of it moving from traditional agriculture into more of the traditional manufacturing space. We have seen geographic information systems (GIS) enabled tractors for a number of years but now we are actually taking that data and utilizing it in a way that is much more effective.
The same with some of the sensors on the vehicles or in the farms; you can think of crop production or livestock production. We are seeing sensors being put on animals, we are seeing sensors being put on feed lots—and all of this information allows us to make decisions when we start applying it with artificial intelligence. Through this, we are able to achieve more efficiencies. What we are going to see over the next while is that these efficiencies start to move through the marketplace.
“We have seen geographic information systems (GIS) enabled tractors for a number of years but now we are actually taking that data and utilizing it in a way that is much more effective.”
In the previous number of years, it was through the smart building infrastructure—like Nest thermostats and all of those types of things—and what they are doing is they are integrating them on platforms, and we will start to see that happen in manufacturing as well as agriculture processing. We will see that these platforms start to adopt all kinds of different sensors that are open, in the sense that you can take a sensor from Company X and apply to platform Company Y, and they all talk to each other—which makes it a much more open environment with a lot more open data. Companies can start to really apply interesting thought processes on how to create efficiencies not only on the factory floor but also in the field or in the farm.
The Intersection of Ontario’s Tech and Manufacturing Industries
There are a lot of AI companies which is really one of Ontario’s strengths. There is a very strong startup community in Toronto and in Kitchener-Waterloo where AI is the core business for so many exciting startups that are taking existing data streams and manipulating them in very interesting ways. And now we can start to adopt them into more traditional technologies and more traditional market uses like manufacturing.
Fanshawe College’s Centre for Research Innovation’s Role in Supporting London’s Manufacturing Companies
What Fanshawe’s Centre for Research Innovation (CRI) does very well is the biotech side, and that is why I focus on the food processing and the food analytics.
We have in our Centre for Advanced Research and Innovation in Biotechnology (CARIB) industry lab the ability to help companies come up with interesting ingredients, we help them test their product for nutritional value and for shelf life—various food products. We also have one of the first licenses for research in cannabis across Canada, so this allows us to partner with various cannabis companies.
What we are actually pivoting towards during COVID-19 is to work on actual treatments for the COVID-19 virus. We are also partnering with some cannabis companies in a similar sort of fashion to treat some of the immune response; looking at minor cannabinoid products that can be produced at a very pharmaceutical grade.
So what we are doing particularly at Fanshawe is trying to position ourselves not just with COVID-19, but with our day-to-day business to provide a very specific resource for companies in the region—whether it is agri-food or cannabis—where they can set up their trials with us and have us do those trials, so that they can look at really specific problems and challenges that they cannot get sorted out elsewhere.
We are able to provide some funding through various government sources like Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the consortium of college funding through the Southern Ontario Network for Advanced Manufacturing Innovation (SONAMI) network, which is kind of the manufacturing side of the research.
So this allows us to look at that processing activity and find out what the endpoint is that they are getting to and it allows us to test that endpoint that they receive, whether it is the shelf life of the food or whether it is a cannabinoid that we have been able to purify. How pure is it? Can we optimize that purification so it can be done cheaper? There are a lot of interesting things that come down and we really hope to position ourselves and start to build out our laboratory even further to get into those specific niches.
London’s Educational Institutions’ Role in Developing Manufacturing Talent
A post-secondary institution is really a linchpin to any community, and sometimes it is the major employer in a lot of communities, so just the value of jobs that they provide is extremely important.
“A post-secondary institution is really a linchpin to any community.”
Like any community, we will continue to play a vital role just in terms of attracting youth to the area, and some of that youth will always stay. They always enjoy their hometown or their first post-secondary institution that they have gone to. But what we need to start to see happening is that post-secondary institutions start to cater to what that regional strength is a little bit better. They all have the inherent interest in having as many different programs as they possibly can have but they are not thinking whether those programs are directly connected to the community’s workforce needs. Fanshawe is doing a very good job of starting to address the cannabis industry, developing cannabis programs; starting to look more at the food industry because of the demands from jobs there.
“We need to be taking part in helping drive the economy more than just through education, but also through centres like the Centre for Research and Innovation.”
So a lot of the post-secondary institutions are starting to really drive forward—particularly the colleges and polytechnics—and realize that we need to be responding faster to this now. We need to be taking part in helping drive the economy more than just through education, but also through centres like the Centre for Research and Innovation. We are providing a service to help companies either bring a new product to market faster and help them pivot faster, while also being a funnel for government resources, like grant funding, to help companies do that.