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College gets $200,000 to incubate ag startups

Expected to begin in 2021, possibly create 2,000 jobs
MVT Olds College front building
Olds College president Stuart Cullum says a recently awarded grant will help fund curriculum development as well as “some of the connectivity that needs to happen between companies worldwide and to our smart ag ecosystem.” File photo/MVP Staff

OLDS — Olds College is receiving a $200,000 Canadian Agriculture Partnership (CAP) grant from the Alberta government to help create an incubator on campus for tech startups in conjunction with partners in Calgary and California.

The federal government is also helping out via Farm Credit Canada, as is Calgary Economic Development.

The announcement was made Sept. 29 on a dirt road on the college grounds between a couple of fields in the middle of the college’s smart farm.

About 40 people attended, braving a stiff wind and cold temperatures.

The idea behind the money, speakers said, is to support investment in high-tech agricultural businesses and ideas with the help of SVG Ventures|THRIVE, a venture capital firm in California’s Silicon Valley.

That firm links investors with companies from around the world who can make startups bigger and more successful.

A news release from the provincial government said this could create about 2,000 jobs.

During an interview with the Albertan, Olds College president Stuart Cullum said the grant, provided via the province’s Agriculture and Forestry ministry, will help fund curriculum development as well as “some of the connectivity that needs to happen between companies worldwide and to our smart ag ecosystem.”

He said those involved in moving the start-ups along could be students or they could be agriculturally-oriented high-tech startups based elsewhere.

“They need to be developed further, they need to be scaled up and they need to be demonstrated,” Cullum said.

“So having a commercial environment like this – a commercial-scale farm – where that can happen, is a really important tool in that process, and that’s what this is about.”

Cullum said the startups will be able to work out of space in former Olds College president Tom Thompson’s home on campus which is now a smart ag innovation centre. Or they can remain in Calgary or elsewhere.

“It’s not about necessarily locating companies here in Olds. It’s about connecting into companies that are located in Calgary and providing them with the space to do their technology development and innovation,” he said.

Cullum predicted the incubator will begin in 2021, especially as that year’s growing season gets underway.

The announcement followed on the heels of an announcement a week earlier that the smart farm is receiving $1 million from the province that will go toward supporting the college’s applied research, equipment and facilities.

Doug Schweitzer, the province’s minister of Jobs the Economy and innovation, touted the grant and what it could do for the economy.

“We’re going to be able to access financial markets as this technology grows. I mean, the ability to develop these accelerated companies happening right here in our community,” he said.

“So this isn’t just a community for one thing. This is a provincial strategy to be at the forefront of technology.

“And that leads to high-paying jobs as we take these ideas and turn them into businesses and we turn them into jobs of the future.”

During his speech Cullum thanked Schweitzer as well as Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen who was also on hand for the announcement.

Cullum said the smart farm, set up a couple of years ago, is an example of how the college can work with AI and entrepreneurs to create new jobs and more efficiency in agriculture.

He said since the smart farm began, it has attracted more than 40 partners and more than $12 million in investment.

During the 2020 growing season, the Olds College smart farm engaged in 16 projects with companies, producers and the research community.

“As agriculture leads Alberta’s economic recovery, the Olds College smart farm is truly becoming a strategic asset for the province of Alberta,” Cullen said.

He also praised Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills MLA Nathan Cooper for his support of the college in general and the smart farm in particular. Cooper was unable to attend the event.

John Hartnett, CEO of SVG Ventures|THRIVE, spoke to the gathering via video link from California.

“We can’t continue to do the same thing the same way. We must innovate, adopt and embrace technology. That is why we set up triads to advance the future of food and agriculture through innovation,” Hartnett said.

“And entrepreneurs from Alberta, from Canada and from around the world can solve these problems.

"That is why we built a vibrant system with thousands of farmers, start-ups and we’re delighted to partner with Olds College to extend that across Canada and Alberta.”

Although he didn’t speak formally during the gathering, Town of Olds Mayor Michael Muzychka thanked Schweitzer, Dreeshen and Cullum for the announcement.

“This is phenomenal,” he said.

“We love it when you guys come because a lot of times you bring money,” Muzychka added with a laugh.