Breaking the Silos for Agritech Innovation: Interview with AGtech Innovation Sandbox’s Sylvain Moreno

April 20, 2022
Boosting agritech innovations to strengthen food security has been a major topic of discussion as global supply chain challenges are felt at local grocery stores. Pacific Economic Development Canada has recently invested $10 million into Simon Fraser University's AGtech Innovation Sandbox (AGIS), which brings together multiple regional academic institutions, government and industry to support businesses in scaling-up and commercialzing agritech innovations. In Surrey EconomIQ Insights Podcast Episode 05, we gain unique insights on how this program will be breaking barriers to bring new game-changing technologies to market and create quality jobs. 
 
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Podcast Summary

 

Background on AGritech Innovation Sandbox (AGIS)

  • Everything started with the Digital Health Circle, where Sylvain is the CEO.
  • The Digital Health Circle works with health and medical tech sectors and started with a goal to find solutions to help industry, academia, hospitals, clinics, and government to work together.
  • They saw that each of these stakeholders were trying to improve health and help Canadians, but they were working in their own silos.
  • They looked at creating a method to bring everybody together to change health outcomes in Canada. Over several years, they partnered with the Networks of Centres of Excellence program, AGE-WELL to test different models of innovation.
  • Sylvain is particularly interested in doing research and wanted to explore how we could bring things done in labs to Canadians.
  • Through trial and error of different innovation models, they found the circle of innovation model to be highly effective in bringing the different stakeholders together to push innovations to market.
  • With the success this model saw in aging technologies, they then tested it with health technologies, then digital health technologies, and then medical health technologies.
  • Application of the model in each field were slightly different because of different specificities, but overall, the model has been successful.
  • Over the last few years, the initiative has created over 200 jobs, 50 million revenue growth in BC companies, and 19 new technologies.
  • Seeing this success, the Federal Government asked Sylvain to expand the model to other domains, including agritech, to see if it can bring success to those domains.

Academic Strengths Backing AGIS

  • SFU President, Dr. Joy Johnson and Vice President, Research and International, Dugan O’Neil is pushing the envelope to help innovation in agritech in SFU
  • One of the leaders in driving agritech in SFU is that we have a lot of robotics expertise, computer science and machine learning and chemical expertise. And other types, but those are three pillars.
  • The three pillars of expertise that gives SFU strength in agritech is: 1) robotics, 2) computer science and machine learning, and 3) chemical. 
  • AGis is led by SFU, but also involves academic intuitions like Kwantlen Polytechnic University, University of Fraser Valley, University of British Columbia, and BC Institute of Technology. 
  • We see this as a provincial initiative, centred out of SFU Surrey to engage all the partners, industry, not-for-profit and agrifood producers.
 

Encouraging Partnership and Collaboration

  • A lot of the initiatives that have been tried in the past have been a type of top-down initiative where people then decide if they agree or not. That approach is why there have been so many issues. 
  • The goal of AGIS is to do the reverse - don't impose anything. We want to help people achieve  their ideas and dreams by empowering them.
  • For example, if we have an agrifood producer who wants to change the way they work on crops, but is not sure where to start because their domain is quite different from technology. We want to be the resource where we can bring the right people into the project to bring the producer's dream forward.
  • We want to hear from partners to see how can we help and through our expertise in innovation and producing products to bring the right people to the table in order to make that dream concrete.

What are the big challenges?

  • The main challenge is the nature of silos – agrifood producers don’t talk to tech companies who don’t talk to academia who don’t talk to government.
  • The second one is human resources - how we create the next generation of people who are going to have those ideas that revolutionize agriculture
  • The third point is to create a network to link people to introduce different domains to each other, and also create a resource so they know where they can work. 

Where is BC going to be a leader?

  • It’s rare to have the environment we see in Surrey with very ambitious academic partners, very ambitious tech companies, and very ambitious municipalities.
  • It’s hard to say exactly where BC is going to be a leader because when you get to know the agritech companies in BC, there are so many opportunities where we can be a leader.
  • We have so much capacity in terms of how much more we can grow by involving technologies.
  • In the next 5 years, it won’t be just one domain that is in front, but several of them. 
  • For example, Sylvain was talking to a company that creates bee robots. Lots of innovation out there.
  • There is a new generation of agrifood producers that want to bring new technologies. We're coming at a point in time where people care about that, so there is a lot of opportunity.
  • Canadians and BC citizens also care about great quality food. That gives us an edge because quality is very important. Not everyone can produce at BC agrifood producer quality.

Connecting with AGIS

Send Sylvain an email at sylvainm@sfu.ca. They are looking to run this initiative by collaboration, so as long as someone has an idea, they can see whether they can help bring that idea to reality.
 
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