Bridging the concept-to-commercialization gap: How Bioenterprise helps Canada’s agri-tech innovators succeed

Vive Crop Protection had developed a brilliant technology: tiny nano-engineered “shuttles” that deliver pesticides exactly where they need to go, maximizing their effectiveness while minimizing the environmental impact.

But as Vive’s president, Darren Anderson, will tell you, innovation alone doesn’t guarantee commercial success. You also need business savvy, industry knowledge and financial resources to navigate the path to market.

That’s why the start-up turned to Bioenterprise Corporation. With 30 team members in offices across the country, Bioenterprise is the largest business accelerator in Canada focused exclusively on agri-technology. Funded through Growing Forward 2, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative, the organization has helped hundreds of ventures get off the ground or grow to the next level since 2003.

“We wanted to talk to some folks that were experts in agricultural applications of new technologies,” Anderson explains. “They were very obviously the best people to call.”

Bioenterprise didn’t disappoint him. They introduced Anderson to investors, sponsored the company’s attendance at key industry meetings and coordinated brainstorming sessions with sector leaders to pinpoint the applications with the greatest potential.

Thanks in no small measure to that help, Vive Crop Protection launched its first line-up of EPA-registered products in 2016. “Bioenterprise support was a critical piece of our successful launch,” Anderson says. “Without it, we would have had trouble getting the traction we have had.”

Handshakes and heavy-hitters

What makes Bioenterprise so effective? According to president Dave Smardon, the answer is sector depth. “All we do is agri-tech, so we know this industry inside and out,” he explains.

As a result, Bioenterprise clients have access to an extensive Rolodex of potential investors, partners, suppliers, customers and more. Meanwhile, the organization has established partnerships with leading professional service providers, from bankers, lawyers and accountants to executive search firms and food safety consultants.

Nor do their connections stop at Canada’s borders. You’ll regularly find Bioenterprise staffers and board members speaking at international events or welcoming delegations from abroad. Earlier this year, the organization helped put together an agri-tech trade mission to Japan.

Among the mission delegates was Anderson, keen to assess prospective demand for Vive products in Asia. “The four-day trade mission was a tremendous success,” he says. “We’re very excited about the potential to begin exporting into Japanese markets.”

Serious business savvy

For newbie entrepreneurs, Bioenterprise is a source of business advice as well. In-house experts will review the viability of an idea, analyze the competition, determine financial needs, conduct market research and help clients become investment-ready.

They can also help navigate Canada’s complex regulatory terrain. That can be invaluable in an industry where literally hundreds of regulations, policies and standards govern almost every aspect of operations — from safety to packaging to production and more.

Take the example of Agri-Neo. The Toronto start-up aims to set new standards for food safety with Neo-Pure, a spray that disinfects seeds, nuts and grains without changing their taste or texture.

Bioenterprise helped Agri-Neo hire the right talent, secure funding, access the regulatory expertise they needed, and find customers. “They’re definitely a leader in the Canadian space in terms of working with agricultural companies,” says President and COO Rob Wong. “They really made a big difference.”

Since launching Neo-Pure in 2016, the company has attracted a roster of major producers and distributors, along with a 2016 Ontario Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence. Earlier this year, Neo-Pure earned FDA approval, allowing customers to use it on an even wider array of dry foods.

Katan Kitchens is another company that credits Bioenterprise with accelerating their success. Founder Jamie Draves was a big believer in the nutritional power of quinoa, a Peruvian superfood. He dreamed of growing and processing the grain in Ontario, supplying a booming demand for local food. However, the agricultural sector was uncharted territory for Draves.

Bioenterprise supplied the expertise he lacked. They scrutinized the company’s business plans, made important connections and developed pitch decks. Since then, Katan Kitchens has achieved one big win after another, partnering with celebrity chef Vikram Vij and securing $1 million in funding. Most recently, they won 2017 International Start-up of the Year at the VitaFoods European Conference, a major global nutraceutical event.

“[Bioenterprise is] a great resource for us, and they’ve been there through each of the stages of the development of our company,” says Draves.

All-important dollars

One of the biggest hurdles facing start-ups and established companies alike is financing growth. Here again, Bioenterprise is positioned to help. As well as connecting clients to investors and assisting with funding proposals, the organization also provides direct financial support to selected enterprises.

In Ontario, Bioenterprise offers seed funding for start-ups and businesses in the province through FedDev Ontario. Since 2016, they have delivered two rounds of seed funding totalling $1,939,000.

For one established Guelph, Ontario company, those dollars helped them take their business to the next level. Since 1983, Rootham Gourmet Preserves had been successfully turning Ontario produce into gourmet condiments, sold in local specialty markets and gift stores.

But owner Will Rootham-Roberts wanted to reach a wider audience. Using a grant from Bioenterprise, he was able to expand processing capabilities and launch a highly targeted direct mail campaign engineered by one of Bioenterprise’s corporate partners.

The results were immediate: Rootham gained more than two-dozen new clients in just two months. That boost to business allowed them to expand production, hire more staff and increase the hours of current employees. The grant also helped support product development with Longo’s, a chain of grocery stores across the Greater Toronto Area, leading to a significant contract.

“This funding was crucial,” says Rootham-Roberts. “The immediate cash infusion allowed us to accelerate our growth very rapidly.” Indeed, the company not only hit their target of doubling gross sales, but they did it in just one year instead of the projected two.

Transforming innovation into commercial success

“The fact is, Canada has no shortage of promising agri-tech ideas, technologies and products,” says Smardon. “Where this country has traditionally fallen short is in turning that innovation into commercial success. And that’s where Bioenterprise makes a big difference.”

According to Smardon, clients that work with Bioenterprise experience a significant increase in growth. Over the last four years alone, the organization’s clients have launched more than 1,000 new products, services and technologies; created hundreds of new jobs; and generated over $12 million in revenues. Bioenterprise has also worked closely with 30 companies in helping them secure more than $120 million in investment.

That’s good news for Canada, helping create new jobs and drive economic growth. It’s also good news for the world as a whole. As the global population continues to balloon, it’s putting more pressure than ever on the planet’s finite resources.

“The world’s future depends on agri-technology,” says Smardon. “If we’re going to feed another two billion people by 2050, we have to produce more food using fewer resources. We have to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and we have to use fresh water much more wisely. And Bioenterprise’s clients are on the forefront of making those changes possible.”