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U of O startups demonstrate city’s agricultural clout

Ottawa’s agricultural and food research sector has exploded over the last decade, with local companies taking the lead in the innovative field.

On Feb. 11 the sector took another step forward with a joint application to Canada’s Strategic Innovation Fund to build a new precision farming testing facility on the National Capital Commission Experimental Farm. If funded, the facility would be equipped to test new automation technologies, ranging from autonomous tractors to automatic soil monitoring.

The idea dates back to a 2017 bid for the Trudeau Government’s supercluster project—a plan to invest $950 million in regional research hubs devoted to key Canadian industries. The proposal was ultimately unsuccessful, but proponents of the plan pushed forward on the project, including City Councillor Jan Harder.

Agribusiness is mentioned in Ottawa’s Rural Affairs and Economic Development Plan as a vital growth industry in the region’s future, citing a growing need for environmentally sustainable farming practices.  

“With a growing population, you have so much of a strain on what is needed to feed the population. We’ve got constraints on resources like water and land,” said Alida Burke, Chief Operating Officer of The Growcer. You need new technologies to meet demand, without destroying those resources.”

The Growcer—a hydroponics company that develops modular farming systems for the far north—began as a U of O entrepreneurial project. They are joined by Sprout—a U of O-based social enterprise that manufactures affordable food kits for low-income communities. Tweed, an Ottawa Valley-based Cannabis producer and the most highly valued company in the field, was also founded by U of O alum Charles Refici.

“The University of Ottawa works a lot with the greater entrepreneurial community … we would not be where we are without them. We’ve found a lot of support, even in agritech,” said Burke.

The original supercluster bid in 2017 highlighted Ottawa’s autonomous vehicle industry and history of communications technology expertise. The report states that both sectors are needed to form the backbone of any precision farming system, and claims the agritech industry represents the convergence of cutting-edge technology and traditional farming methods.

Burke claims the future of the industry in Ottawa is unpredictable, but she is optimistic. “The agritech industry—or at least the technology we are seeing now—is quite new. I don’t know if anyone knows what it will like in 10 years … but it is important that we find these new ways to meet demand in Canada and around the world.”