Work is underway in Saskatchewan to help grow the agriculture technology sector in the province.
It will take a lot of time and money, but Sean O’Connor foresees a future where Saskatchewan is a global hub for agricultural technology.
“So we should be seeing billion-dollar technology companies in the agtech space emerge across Canada, particularly here in Saskatchewan, that are able to solve a problem (often thinking about the Canadian farmer), but then are selling this product all over the world,” said O’Connor, who is the managing director of Emmertech.
That possible future is still a ways off; O’Connor estimates 10 years. However, the work toward making it a reality is already beginning through a venture capital fund and business accelerator designed to support up and coming Canadian agtech companies.
Launched this year, Emmertech is a venture capital fund focused on agtech and agribusiness innovation. Managed and operated by Conexus Venture Capital Inc., the fund has reached an initial close of $45 million. The fund is also a founding partner of the Agtech Accelerator, a program operated by Conexus’ Cultivator incubator in Regina.
Headed up by business incubator manager Jordan McFarlen, the accelerator will provide high-growth agtech companies with access to capital, mentorship and industry connections. The accelerator just closed its application process, which saw more than 50 applicants from across Canada. Ten will be selected for the first cohort, which launches in March of next year.
The accelerator also attracted international interest. It has partnered with Innovate UK, which will send five of the top early-stage agtech companies from the United Kingdom to participate in the first cohort.
McFarlen said Canada has long been a leader in agriculture, and with a growing tech sector in the country as well, Agtech’s organizers want to ensure the country stays at the forefront.
“The best and brightest minds in agtech from across Canada are participating in a program that’s happening here in Saskatchewan, and the impact and ecosystem impact and continual development from that is going to be huge,” said McFarlen.
Emmertech is investing a minimum of $100,000 into each company selected to take part in the Agtech Accelerator’s first cohort. The accelerator is looking for startups with technology solutions focused on areas such as precision agriculture, robotics and automation, farm management and animal health.
“Generally you’re looking for a really committed team solving a really big problem,” said McFarlen.
The fact that Agtech is venture-capital backed makes it unique. The equity investment for companies is a first for an accelerator in Canada. Access to capital is key for these companies, which need to grow quickly. Fortunately, more venture capital is steadily making its way into the province.
O’Connor said that in the last quarterly report from the Canadian Venture Capital Association, Saskatchewan has secured $201 million in venture capital so far in 2021. That’s up significantly from the $14 million in all of 2017.
“We’ve proven that if you just allow our founders to have an equal footing or equal playing field and untie that one arm behind their back, which was access to capital, that they can compete with anyone in the world,” said O’Connor.
Agtech is not going it alone. The accelerator has been making several partnerships in the community. This includes a $300,000 commitment from Innovation Saskatchewan. The University of Regina is providing $180,000 in support, and the University of Saskatchewan is providing $20,000 in 2021 and a potential total investment of up to $180,000 over the course of three years. The accelerator has also signed a partnership with Sask. Polytech.
While other waves of technology innovation have been concentrated in cities such as Montreal or Vancouver, O’Connor said the Prairies have a chance to be at the centre of agtech.
“I think we’ve got a unique opportunity in Saskatchewan that is being looked at by a lot of secondary ecosystems to say ‘agtech needs to start in the agriculture beds of Canada, and where better then here in Saskatchewan to lead that charge,’” said O’Connor.
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