Calgary: Driving Canadian Agtech Innovation
- Calgary’s growing technology ecosystem is enhancing the capacity of all sectors including agriculture.
- Canada’s world-leading innovations in agriculture from indoor farming to alternative proteins makes it a prime destination for investment.
- The talent pool in Calgary has been cultivated by the energy sector for years, making it easy to retrain and redeploy workers.
Calgary is expanding its position as a world-leader in agriculture, through innovations in technology and the continued cultivation of talent. With more partnerships set up across industries and between the private and public sector, Calgary’s agriculture industry is primed for continued growth. Technological innovations, in particular, are going to make the biggest difference in setting Calgary apart from the competition.
What are some of Canada’s competitive advantages for attracting foreign direct investment and what areas do you think we can improve on?
Canada has a lot of strengths, which is why we have been successful over the years. We are well-accepted in the global community. When we think about a web of different treaties and legal implications that allow capital to flow across borders with some level of certainty, we are known as a region with a strong rule of law and framework in that respect. All of those are very strong components of why Canada continues to be and can be a home for capital globally.
Looking at Calgary specifically, what are some of the city’s strengths that come to mind for attracting foreign direct investment?
Calgary has always been very entrepreneurial. I am originally from Saskatchewan, further east on the Prairies, and we always thought Calgary is a very entrepreneurial ecosystem, which is very supportive of growing companies and people who want to make their own dream, so to speak. That underlying foundational skill set is what allowed Calgary to build itself into a global energy powerhouse, and it is that same trait that will allow us to continue to build in a number of sectors, whether that is agriculture or technology, energy of tomorrow, robotics, and so on.
What would you say to anybody outside of Calgary and Alberta who considers the city, and by extension the region, as being all about oil and gas?
It is a common misconception of Calgary is that all of it is just oil and gas. In reality, there is so much that is happening in this city and has been for years. It is easy to think about oil and gas as a bit of the big brother in the room, but this is a region that is also very rich agriculturally. We are home to some massive companies, organizations, and innovators in agriculture, and Calgary has a growing technology scene that is world leading in artificial intelligence, machine learning and a whole host of sectors, among other things. We also are home to some of the biggest renewable energy companies in the world, which a lot of people do not think of when they think of oil and gas.
How would you describe Canada’s agriculture industry and what areas of the industry do you think make it most attractive for companies?
For generations, Canada has been an absolute world leader in agriculture—everything from plant breeding and genetics to improved practices, no till, and zero till. When we think about ways to operate and have less impact on the soil and to treat the soil better, a lot of those practices, ways of thinking, and associated technologies have come out of Western Canada, and that was born out of need with low rain fall seasons and high wind erosion, et cetera. We have led the way. Canola, which is a product that now we think of as just a part of our everyday life with canola oil and a healthy oil alternative, now stands for “Canada’s oil.” This was a product that was bred and born in Western Canada in the post-World War II era. There are a lot of things going on here and Canada has continued to position itself as a world leader in agriculture.
“Plant-based protein is an exploding area globally as the world’s population needs to consume more protein.”
Going forward, it continues to so, and it will. If you think about things like plant-based proteins, Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat Burgers, and these types of things—plant-based protein is an exploding area globally as the world’s population needs to consume more protein, but also looking at where that protein comes from. We joke in our business that the plant-based, protein burgers that are in the market—they should call them Western Canada Burgers because they are essentially everything we produce here from salt, peas, lentils, and canola oil. Those are the main ingredients that are going into these products and blended up.
When we look at autonomous technologies coming to the farm and across the supply chain, as well as how we can use better technology and robotics, Western Canada and Canada in particular is leading. Indoor farming is a big push right now globally, particularly with COVID-19 when we think about how we can produce our food closer to where we consume it because of the supply chain disruptions that we have seen. With that, comes traceability. These are all areas that are really interesting right now, they are developing really quickly all over the world, and Canada is on the forefront of that and can continue to be so.
Are we seeing foreign direct investment in Canada and specifically in Alberta’s agriculture sector, and if so, in which areas?
In our sector, which is agriculture technology, we are still seeing capital being deployed. In fact, if anything, we are almost seeing more interest in Canada, and some of that is because of the things that we are doing here. That being said, those are small capital dollars relative to a massive energy infrastructure project or these types of things. But, those are dollars that also create jobs and get things going. It is almost a breadcrumb situation in that there is a little bit, then there is a follow-on of a larger round, and so on and so forth. That continues to spool up, which is tremendously exciting. I mentioned lots of tailwinds in agriculture around things like plant-based proteins. Another area we did not mention is biological: how can we use natural herbicides and pesticides to control things that we have previously used artificial chemicals with? These are areas where we are seeing a lot of interest and so capital is flowing.
What about the availability of talent around agriculture and specifically agtech in Calgary right now?
What is interesting is Calgary has very deep talent resources that had been built by our energy industry over the years. Whether it is data analytics, project management, or these types of things, there is a lot of talent in Calgary, so we are retooling and refocusing it to be deployed in other industries. Whether that is agriculture, some of the work that is happening around robotics and warehousing, or supply chain management technology, there are lots of companies doing very interesting things and so redeploying that talent base is exceptional. As I mentioned, project management, for example—Calgary is a world leader in project management. We have to be. We built the oil sands and so this is a tremendous opportunity for us.
“There is a lot of talent in Calgary, so we are retooling and refocusing it to be deployed in other industries.”
What about the cost and ease of doing business in Calgary and also the supportive environment for new investments to the region?
The cost of doing business in Calgary seems to be ever-evolving and part of that is unfortunately due to some of the macro headwinds that the city is facing. The knock-on benefits are that there are some benefits for companies like ours as we are continuing to try and scale and grow rapidly. One of the things that we wrestle with is right-sizing office space, for example, to a team that is doubling or more on a year-over-year basis. That is really hard to plan through a traditional five to seven to 10-year office space lease environment.
But the flipside is people are looking at it differently now and so there are different options and different ways to look at it. Unfortunately for some, but fortunately for others, there is a lot of sublease space available and so that creates an ability to meet the demand of the market for companies like ours, for example, and those types of opportunities.
“The Calgary ecosystem has a tremendous amount of skills that have been developed over the years that now can be redeployed.”
There is also a lot of interest in different supporters whether it is banking relationships or professional services relationships to build up other groups in the region and other sectors and focuses. As a result, they are very supportive. We have great relationships with big accounting firms and big law firms, which are all things that we need to make sure that we are scaling and growing in the right way and we are not making a mess of down the road. In a traditional model, those could be really difficult bills to try and manage when we are also growing so rapidly. Working them in a true partnership style is something that we are able to do and is a great positive. The Calgary ecosystem has a tremendous amount of skills that have been developed over the years that now can be redeployed to really accelerate these other areas.
What would be your pitch to investors and Canadians looking to Calgary and also thinking about the importance of foreign investment to Canada’s overall economy?
I would say, do not bet against Canadians. Look at what we have done globally across all sorts of things, whether that is space programs, agriculture, energy, banking, or finance. We have a tremendous track record and I think we will continue to build on that. If we as Canadians are working together, we can do some pretty awesome things, and I look forward to doing that also with our international counterparts.