Key takeaways from Invest Vancouver’s agtech report
Metro Vancouver is a fertile ground for its young companies to flourish, the document suggests, if action is taken now.
If Vancouverites learned nothing more from the pandemic than not to hoard toilet paper, remember this: commodities can run out, and supply chains are fragile. And while having to downgrade from three-ply to paper towel is hardly a disaster, bare grocery aisles – especially when they’re stripped of fruits, vegetables, and grain staples – are.
Invest Vancouver’s agtech report spotlights the importance of securing a more resilient global food system. Climate change, supply chain disruptions, and labour shortages are happening today, and are forecast to worsen without intervention. But, according to the report, the decline is not a foregone conclusion.
The document, “Agritech Today, Building for Tomorrow,” highlights how the Metro Vancouver region has an exceptional opportunity to move to the forefront of resiliency-focused innovation – not just for our province, but to export technology that can help mitigate the global food crisis. Agtech is developed to transform the farm sector, improving production, profitability, and sustainability. Like everything climate related, though, swift change is required to support the young industry.
Here are the key takeaways from the report to help Metro Vancouver’s agtech sector beef up – pun intended – from early-stage to maturity.
Vancouver natives Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon were onto something with their globally-feted The 100-Mile Diet: a book that details their experiences only eating foods that were grown within 100 miles of their Kitsilano (of course) apartment. The agtech report agrees that the best way to cut carbon emissions stemming from long-range food transport is to substitute staples like Californian leafy greens for those locally grown. By shortening supply chains, B.C.’s groceries are less vulnerable to disruptions, and by instituting new tech such as climate-controlled growth, the region will have resiliency in the face of an uncertain climate.
Adoption of technology
And here’s the catch. The report finds that B.C. farmers are reluctant to institute high-tech solutions into their practice. From afar, it’s easy to assume that business owners would be (more agricultural puns; apologies) champing at the bit to add solutions that could offer higher yields, greater efficiency, and increased resilience to pests or extreme weather. In practice, farmers understandably lean on time-honoured practices, particularly when the tech is new and commercially unproven. Metro Vancouver farms are often small-scale, family-run operations that have limited time and resources to experiment with tech, and farmers in more rural communities may lack the reliable high-speed internet to integrate new solutions into their operations.
The report suggests that the province must fund an easy-to-access government grant that enables farmers to adopt made-in-B.C. agtech products and services. A grant would de-risk the choice to try something new, while opening new markets for local agtech products and services.
That grant proposal opens the possibility – and necessity – for Vancouver’s agtech sector to grow and scale. To become a leading centre, the region needs to go beyond research and development, incubation, and commercialization to develop the high-quality infrastructure that can support it. Many agtech companies in Metro Vancouver work in silos, without an industry-focused association or formal community to cross-pollinate, collaborate, and share ideas.
The report suggests that the region needs tighter integration within the sector, better information exchange, and feedback loops between firms, investors, government, accelerators, and educators. Many agtech entrepreneurs and startups are only connected to the research universities or accelerators where they originated, and most of those are sector-agnostic rather than specialized. For agtech to thrive, a greater network of connections must be built.
Finding the right fit
The customer is always right – except when it isn’t. The report cites a comment from an interview that “you can go sideways with the wrong first customer; you need to get your best customer first” – an important consideration, given that nearly all of the 150 agtech companies in B.C. are young. As firms emerge from early-stage development and look to scale up, they need to connect with big buyers. This poses a challenge given the slow rate of agtech adoption in Metro Vancouver, and that most potential customers are based in the U.S.
Invest Vancouver recommends that programs are developed to make critical first connections, especially when the ideal buyer is across a border or ocean. Arguing for a business-to-business matchmaking system in B.C. and beyond, the report spotlights the need for funding for key trade missions, and helping local agtech companies find and attend international conferences. Such a mission would make use of the “ready to export” guide the document suggests should be created to help steer startups.
Focus on the agtech sector is rightfully increasing as challenges such as climate change, food security, and pandemics become more likely and severe. B.C.’s favourable climate conditions, along with its reputation for sustainability and clean growth, make it a fertile place for the sector to flourish. Growth in the agtech sector is within reach, the report suggests, if the Metro Vancouver region takes action now to realize it.
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