Q&A: leadership to help commercialize agritech in the province

July 28, 2022
SFU Interactive Arts and Technology Professor Sylvain Moreno, special advisor to the vice-president research and international, chief executive officer and scientific director, B.C. Centre for Agritech Innovation at the recent provincial government’s $6.5-million funding announcement for the centre.

The new B.C. Centre for Agritech Innovation will accelerate the research and development of new technologies in the agritech space, ultimately driving economic growth and recovery in British Columbia, while addressing climate change and food security challenges in the region. The centre will be located at Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) Surrey campus.

Agricultural technology—agritech—is defined as the use of technologies developed to improve farming sustainability, efficiency and profitability. The goal is to produce more abundant, nutritious and affordable food with less space, water, soil, energy, fertilizer, chemicals and waste.  

British Columbia’s agritech industry is dominated by creative, flexible and innovative small and medium enterprises (or SMEs)—but functions in silos with limited access to skilled talent and specialized resources. The centre will aim to support these SMEs, made possible through our academic, government and industry partners. Pacific Economic Development Canada (PacifiCan) has co-invested $10 million over the next five years and just last week, the province announced funding from the Ministry of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation (JERI) of $6.5 million over three years.

This latest investment is expected to create nearly 200 jobs and help train more than 700 workers, while adding 30 new agritech projects throughout B.C. by 2025. The centre is a key component of the provincial government’s StrongerBC Economic Plan, and has already begun taking applications from SMEs throughout the province.

We sat down with SFU Professor Sylvain Moreno, special advisor to the vice-president research and international, and chief executive officer and scientific director for the centre, to discuss what impacts it will make and how it will support SMEs to scale-up and commercialize agritech in the region.

How were you involved in the development of the centre?

I am the founder of a new innovation model—called Circle Innovation—that has been widely successful in growing the economy and creating new, high-quality jobs for Canadians. My passion for innovation has pushed me to develop this model in several fields. After two years of studies and work with our partners on the ground, it was clear to us that the agritech sector is the future rising star of the B.C. economy.

What makes you passionate about helping SMEs scale up and commercialize agritech?

Agritech has the potential to empower the agriculture sector and bring more quality B.C. foods to our table. This emerging sector will not only create new job opportunities, but also enhance competitiveness and help move our province towards carbon neutrality by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and waste. Agritech and its wide range of disruptive technologies can provide solutions to support the agriculture sector with some of its key challenges, including climate change, food security and labour shortages. SMEs are the pillar of our economy—helping them supports the growth of our region and thousands of jobs. People who work in SMEs are our neighbours, our friends and our family members, and I feel privileged to lead this initiative.

What are some examples of emerging technologies?

Just some of these technologies would include:

  • Precision agriculture: technologies that collect data and share information like GPS, sensors, big data and artificial intelligence, and high-tech farming equipment;
  • Controlled environment agriculture: indoor technology-based production systems like greenhouses, vertical farming and hydroponics;
  • Sustainable food production: such as regenerative farming practices; and
  • Agricultural biotechnology and bio-products.

How will the centre support upskilling and training?

Our goal is to provide opportunities to people who want to join this industry sector. We have created a training program in which the participants directly work on one of our industry projects. They are guided by experts in a real-world project setting through an industry product development process. We are also developing technology/digital literacy skills for agri-food producers and other domain stakeholders. Ultimately, the centre is supporting training for high-paying, high-skilled jobs of tomorrow that support agritech SMEs.

Explain more about the centre’s criteria for agritech projects to be considered in the application process.

Our projects are led by an SME partner. With the centre’s support, we then connect to several stakeholders of the agritech sector (a tech company; an academic team; and an agrifood producer) all collaborating on a product development or pilot testing project, for example. Projects must be related to agriculture, agritech and agri-foods, have more than one partner and have the potential to be commercialized within 12-24 months. They must be B.C. based, privately run and in operation for at least two years with a clear plan for business scale-up.

How can prospective partners get in touch to advance B.C.’s agritech network?

The goal of the centre is to support and empower the province’s agritech sector. It is an ecosystem for stakeholder collaboration to share best practices and co-create solutions addressing sector challenges. We welcome any project from any agriculture domain, on an ongoing basis. We are also here to help build projects and connect partners. If anyone has an idea or is interested in learning how they can be a part of the network, we want to hear from them. People can reach us directly by email at bc_cai@sfu.ca. We will then meet to discuss and create a project, build a connection and grow the sector together.

Learn more about the centre through stories published on SFU News:

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