The Fraser Valley's ag-tech assets—and challenges

Five entrepreneurs talk about what makes southwestern BC a good, but sometimes challenging, place to start an ag-tech business

FVC Editor Tyler Olsen and five ag-tech entrepreneurs talked about the benefits and challenges of starting a business in the Fraser Valley. 📷 Abbotsford Tech District

This story first appeared in the June 7 edition of the Fraser Valley Current newsletter. Subscribe for free to get Fraser Valley news in your email every weekday morning.

Farms are getting fancier in the Fraser Valley.

It’s been a long time since the region was simply a string of farming communities slung along the Fraser like beads on a necklace. There are still lots of farms, of course, growing everything from beef to berries. But how those farms look and operate in the Fraser Valley is changing as the valley itself develops and diversifies.

Several pioneers in the world of new farm technology and innovation say the Fraser Valley is a good place to plant the seeds of new high-tech projects. Its proximity to investors and high tech laboratories and scientists is a benefit. But the region is not without its specific challenges for ag-tech entrepreneurs.

Last November, FVC editor Tyler Olsen moderated a panel discussion about innovation in the agricultural sector. The panelists gathered at the Grounded Innovation: Agriculture and Food Summit at UFV in Abbotsford and talked about the ag-tech sector in the Fraser Valley, its future, why it can be a good place to get farming tech startups off the ground–and, sometimes, why it isn’t.

Tyler was joined on the panel by five panelists, each of whom has tried to solve a different agricultural problem through technology. The panelists were: Peter Gross, the co-founder of Lucent BioSciences; Tanya Mehta, the founder of Aright Greentech Canada; chemical engineer and entrepreneur Hassan Pardawalla; Mark Vendrig, the director of Precision Crop Tech; and Kevin Cussen, project lead at LiteFarm.

You can watch the full discussion here. But we’ve excerpted the response to one set of questions below.

Tyler asked each about what makes the Fraser Valley well-suited to growing an agri-tech business and what’s one thing that could be done to make the Fraser Valley a better place to grow such a business.

Gross: So we actually started on the campus of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby at 4D Laboratories, and for those of you who don't know, 4D Laboratories is a public private partnership. It’s a material science NASA.

We had a very specific question about material science and one of them was: Can we make a form of iron that can be uptaken by phytoplankton, which is totally different from what we're doing now? With the research that was done there, we ended up with a material that was able to deliver nutrients to plants in seawater without releasing the nutrients into seawater. One of the professors at SFU went, ‘Hey, have you tried this with plants?’ And then we went, ‘Well, why would we do that?’ Then we realized that was the stupidest thing we've ever said.

So after a short period of research, we discovered that these compounds that were designed to release key nutrients to plankton worked extremely well in soils and had unique attributes. So the R&D and the initial science was done at 4D Labs…After that, we moved to a scale up facility, an initial piloting facility, and then we had to move up to full-scale manufacturing. We did this in Saskatchewan, because that's one of the agricultural centres.

So we have multiple locations. The thing that was pivotal for us was having access to the laboratory facilities, and the intellectual capacity of all the scientists and engineers at 4D Labs that helped us scale quickly. Also having access—once we started moving forwards, having access to the capitalization system here… At the conclusion of the program, some of our advisors actually became investors, which triggered other investors to come through.

Olsen: What was the pivotal thing that made you decide to go to Saskatchewan?

Gross: I can tell you exactly why. The demand for our product in BC and the demand for a product in Saskatchewan were on different levels. What we learned how to do in BC, was how to manufacture our product in our piloting facility at 30 kilograms a day. But our facility in Saskatchewan makes 20,000 kilograms a day. So with that scale, you've got to be able to sell it, you got to put it to market. And obviously in Saskatchewan, with the giant farms—one of the growers we're working with is almost 300,000 acres—at that scale, we can move our product without having to transport it for huge distances and make it affordable for the growers and still have margins for our company and our investors.

Olsen: Tanya, how about you? Why did you decide to start your ag tech startup here and then what are some of the challenges that come along with that?

Tanya Mehta is the owner and founder of Aright Greentech Canada, a modular container farm that uses hydroponics to grow lettuce in an effort to localize Canada’s lettuce supply. The farm grows 15,000 heads of lettuce a week.

Mehta: We started in Abbotsford because we are an agricultural community. It made obvious sense to me to start here. Land in Vancouver is pretty expensive. So I moved out as far as I could. The challenges were quite a bit, and I can go on forever [about them]. But I initially wanted to start this business in 2019. And that's the time when COVID was also happening. But it took me a while to understand our land use policies. I went through those struggles, like I had my application stuck [at the Agricultural Land Commission].

They said, ‘We're sending you the approval in 15 days’ and then here I was four months later. I was like ‘Okay, land prices have gone up should I just sell? Maybe we're not ready for ag tech.’

So those were some land use policies issues I had and, in fact, up until the end of 2022 I was really questioning how our land use policies are and how the marketing of lettuce has been set up in BC. Like, am I really a farmer? I didn't fall into those guidelines. It’s still a challenge, and I still have lettuce that I'm throwing away every week. It's all good quality, but it doesn't fit the criteria of how greenhouses have been growing. So I'm still on that challenge. Financing was a challenge too. I had Farm Credit Canada but the setup here is very different to how things are done in India and Singapore, where we do have ag tech investments and farm investments. So it's not as inviting.

Olsen: Thank you. Hassan, tell me about how BC’s ecosystem affected your work?

Hassan Pardawalla is a chemical engineer who helps get different clean technology and agriculture startups off the ground and helps find ways to commercialize their inventions. His own startup, which focused on rescuing food and using freeze-drying and other methods to upcycle it into different products, went bankrupt last August.

Pardawalla: One thing that’s great about the Lower Mainland is access to the diversity of different produce, different fruits, having greenhouses with blueberries, cranberries—they all require different harvesting times and they require different soil requirements.

Looking at understanding what each farmer was doing at a smaller scale makes it easier to understand the bigger scale of the market. There's a lot of farming companies out there which are way bigger and have way more access to capital than we do. So being in the Lower Mainland, it was easy to talk to greenhouses, talk to blueberry farms, even go to Bowen Island and talk to the cideries and look at apple trees. Being in a small area where you can easily make connections was key to us.

The challenges were finance, or getting the capital in from people in BC. All investment was coming from overseas, and that caused challenges. Just finding real estate, which was [Canadian Food Inspection Agency] approved, and going through the entire approval process was a nightmare. Do we build a facility here? Or do we go down to the states where it could be easier to go through the entire process?

Olsen: Thanks for that. Mark, I know you have some thoughts on both sides of this question.

Mark Vendrig is the director of Precision Crop Tech, which focuses on using drones and automation in efforts to reduce labour costs for farmers and improve precision farming in Canada.

Vendrig: Yeah, it's been a long time since we've gone through this process. In 2017, we opened our company to focus specifically on agricultural technology, and particularly focusing on drones, and we ran into Transport Canada, Nav Canada, Health Canada, and the list goes on. And that's just at the federal level. We then ran into the provincial regulators who were extremely slow and not wanting to see new technology. It was going beyond what they could understand and accept.

Regulations restrict a lot of the work and the projects that Vendrig wants to pursue. Even after years of trials across the country, the future of several drone spraying projects is not certain. Regulatory processes in Alberta and Manitoba can be a lot friendlier, Vendrig said. The US is also more efficient.

We still don't know whether this is going to become a reality. It's extremely regulated. And once we get past that, we now have to go to the provincial level and start getting licenses, and although we've been speaking to them for multiple years, there's very little movement over there.

So those are some of the challenges that we have. But why is Abbotsford such a great place to do it? Not too small of farms, lots of variety, lots of people needing to be super-efficient, so that they can actually make this work for themselves on an agricultural basis. And that creates a huge amount of opportunity for us.

While that opportunity is important, there’s opportunity in other places as well. And other provinces have been sniffing around. Vendrig says that the Fraser Valley—and BC in general—should make things easier for the agri-tech sector, or inventors and entrepreneurs might go in search of greener pastures elsewhere.

This year at the agri-show, at 7 o’clock, before the show opens on the first morning, we had people from Alberta standing in front of our booth and they were saying ‘Come to Alberta. We will give you financing. We will do this. Come and develop your products.’ They had done their research before the show even started, knew what we were doing, even knew some of the investors we have been speaking to.

We've got this great potential over here on all these different farms, with huge space for innovation, but we're not supporting that innovation. We’ve got other provinces picking us up and coming in and basically capturing our attention. If we want to do something over here [in BC], we have to get onto the land. We need to be able to have access to areas where we can test our equipment. And we need places where we can collaborate with other people. Something like that would be extremely useful in this area.

Olsen: That's great. Kevin, your startup is really focused on making use of people's knowledge. Can you tell us about that?

Kevin Cussen is the project lead at LiteFarm, an open source farm management platform that serves more than 3,600 farms in 145 countries. 

Cussen: I started LiteFarm as a research project at the University of British Columbia and it's now a worldwide community-led platform. So I can talk about some of the things that have been really helpful about being here and starting here. I think the panel brought up just the amount of farms and the diversity of crops that are being grown. That's incredible. You know, as a startup, you want to iterate as quickly as you can, to do a bunch of little experiments, place a lot of little bets and learn as fast as you can. And having a lot of farmers growing a lot of things lets you do that. So that's really, really helpful. There's obviously a really strong pipeline of talent and partners. There's many scientists and excellent post-secondary institutions here to partner.

I would say of the challenges, number one is expense. But on the plus side, with high value crops, you have farmers that are willing to invest in innovative solutions because when you're getting a big payout, you're willing to spend more money to get to that payout. But then on the flip side, [the expense makes it] so hard to do just about anything. Like, if you need land, it's very expensive. If you need equipment, it's expensive to build here. So I would say cost is the primary challenge, at least for us.

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