The term “economic powerhouse” often conjures up the image of a megacity. Yet when it comes to creating a collaborative, connected and supportive innovation ecosystem, smaller urban centres can have significant advantages.
Take Regina, for example. With a city population of 268,000, “it is punching above its weight for the ability to attract entrepreneurs, businesses and investment,” says Chris Lane, president and CEO, Economic Development Regina (EDR). “You don’t have to be in a big city to have big ideas or to have big champions.”
One important factor contributing to the capital of Saskatchewan’s success is its proximity to key resources – “food, fuel and fertilizer – the three ‘fs’ the world needs,” says Mr. Lane. “Surrounded by tens of millions of acres of the most productive and sustainable farmland in the world, Regina has a unique value proposition as a centre of excellence in food, ingredients, agtech and cleantech.”
Abundant agricultural resources have attracted processors and manufacturers as well as innovators looking to improve the entire value chain: from new technologies and product and process development to packing and transportation. Combined with strong trade infrastructure, numerous anchor firms and a diverse talent pool, “Regina is a great home for companies looking to build solutions and find investors,” says Mr. Lane. “The scale of investment we’re attracting to a single sector is unparalleled in our history.”
In addition to private investment in the range of billions, support from all levels of government can help boost “predictability and sustainability,” he notes. “The distance between research and development and application is shorter here than anywhere else.”
The resulting critical mass – and an impressive lineup of influential companies, leaders and innovators – achieves an impact that is “greater than the sum of its parts, where definitions of agriculture and agtech are changing to go beyond primary [food] production to things like renewable fuels and other bioproducts.
“We’re doing far more with what we grow and process than anybody would have thought possible even a decade ago,” says Mr. Lane, “and Regina is at the heart of that new economy.”
This evolution has also been noticed by Kyle Folk, founder and CEO, Ground Truth Agriculture Inc. “When I started in 2011, agtech wasn’t even a word,” he recalls. “Now, it’s not only a word, it’s something exciting – something people are keenly interested in.”
Mr. Folk grew up in a small grain-farming community northwest of Regina and moved to the city to pursue a career as an electrician. The idea of leveraging technology to improve outcomes for farmers was first sparked on a visit to his parents’ farm, where he discovered spoiled grain in a bin. “This inspired me to build my first agtech company,” he says of what would become Bin-Sense, a grain storage monitoring solution that was acquired by Calian Group in 2018.
Mr. Folk left the company in 2020 to start a new venture, Ground Truth Ag, with the goal to build a system for evaluating grain quality in real time on combines. “Farmers talk a lot about yields, about how many bushels per acre, but they haven’t been able to tie crop quality to specific locations,” he says, adding that such information can enable targeted interventions and precision agriculture decisions. “We’ve already seen some early wins with using machine vision and machine learning.”
Ground Truth Ag is part of the most recent cohort of companies in the Agtech Accelerator, a program that combines agriculture and technology – and that is supported by EDR, venture capital fund Emmertech and Cultivator powered by Conexus; giving Regina a unique combination of tech incubators backed by private capital and connected to real agricultural experts and producers.
Saskatchewan producers and manufacturers continue to revolutionize sustainable, productive dryland farming techniques. For agtech companies like Ground Truth Ag, that openness to innovation means opportunity.
“For building an agtech company, there is no better place than Regina. Within an hour of driving, you have access to countless test farms eager to test and implement something new,” says Mr. Folk. “You also have a community where people help each other out. There is this sense of working together instead of against each other – so all can achieve their goals.”
Clean energy and bioproducts
Beyond feeding the world, Saskatchewan’s abundance of agricultural resources can also help to advance the goal of reducing the reliance on petrochemicals for fuels and products, says Mark Cooper, CEO of Prairie Clean Energy. “Demand for bioenergy and bioproducts is already significant – and continues to grow.”
"Regina is a great home for companies looking to build solutions and find investors. The scale of investment we’re attracting to a single sector is unparalleled in our history.
President and CEO, Economic Development Regina
As countries and regions move away from high-carbon-emitting energy sources – including the phasing out of coal-powered electricity generation on the Prairies – energy made from biomass can help to fill the gap. To date, the most common fibre used for bioenergy is wood fibre, yet this brings challenges for both availability and sustainability, says Mr. Cooper. “The next horizon is going to be in the agricultural space, and there’s no place on Earth with a more abundant supply than the Prairies.”
Prairie Clean Energy has worked to advance the research and development of pelletizing flax straw, he explains. “Over the next three years, we will launch production in our facility in Regina as well as in two additional facilities across the Prairie region, which will produce a total of about 450,000 tonnes of pellets per year.”
In addition to meeting the need for clean energy, the innovation also provides revenue for farmers for what is now a waste product, says Mr. Cooper. “Every year, millions of tonnes of flax straw are just getting burned in the fields.”
While the flax straw biomass facilities will achieve a significant impact, they only represent a first step in Prairie Clean Energy’s path to reduce carbon emissions in energy systems and other sectors. “We see a real opportunity to use a range of agricultural fibres for a multitude of end uses in the bioenergy space,” he says. “We’re constructing the world’s first Net Zero Bio Hub, and are actively building out a carbon neutral supply chain that will result in our products being carbon negative. This will be a game-changer for the biomass space.”
Regina was the obvious choice for Prairie Clean Energy’s headquarters due to the proximity to agricultural suppliers as well as support for cleantech companies, according to Mr. Cooper. “It offers the opportunity to move quickly, for example, in meeting with decision-makers or addressing regulatory hurdles, and that’s important for speed to market.
“It makes sense for a biomass cluster to be located here,” he says. “This allows us to add a fourth ‘f’ the world needs: ‘fibre.’”
And Prairie Clean Energy is not just focused on flax. Along with others in Regina’s emerging biomass cluster, the company is pursuing major opportunities in canola, pulse crops and even wheat residue. Being surrounded by extensive cropland and forward-thinking producers is a huge advantage across the board.
" For building an agtech company, there is no better place than Regina. Within an hour of driving, you have access to countless test farms eager to test and implement something new.
Founder and CEO, Ground Truth Agriculture Inc.
Support and collaboration
Regina’s competitive advantage has “already attracted some of the most successful agtech and cleantech companies, and we’re just getting started,” says Mr. Lane. “What in other places might be six degrees of separation is two degrees or one in Regina, and this allows innovators to be agile and respond quickly when they see an opportunity.”
The resulting ecosystem is built on “mutual support between the organizations that financially back these companies, the people who work in them and the founders looking to take their ideas to impact,” he says.
In addition to skilled talent coming from Regina’s post-secondary institutions, the city also aims to “make a competitive play to attract the best and the brightest in their fields,” Mr. Lane says. “It’s a great place – with lots of amenities – to live and raise a family. And I’ll guarantee that your commute will last no longer than it takes to listen to five songs on the radio.”
What’s more, there is a sense that everyone’s success matters, he adds. “In Regina, you’ll even find your competitors cheering you on.”
Advertising feature produced by Randall Anthony Communications with Grow Your World Regina. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.