Robotic mushroom picker shows innovation cropping up in B.C.
The importance of Innovate BC’s Agritech Innovation Challenge from an entrepreneur’s point of view cannot be overstated, as far as Mike Boudreau, president & CEO of Technology Brewing Corporation in Salmon Arm, is concerned.
“An overwhelmingly large percentage of business development in this province happens from the grassroots, and while we have lots of technology-savvy people with great ideas that can advance industry, a good many of them don’t have the business experience or training to take their ideas to the market,” Boudreau says. “And that’s exactly the kind of benefits Innovate BC, with its Agritech Challenge, provides.”
Boudreau knows of what he speaks. He is one of three winners of this year’s Agritech Innovation Challenge, an initiative that attracted 70 submissions for projects to improve the sustainability and security of B.C.’s food supply by improving production methods. Of these submissions, 10 were selected to submit full proposals, and from these 10, a review committee of industry, government, and academic leaders chose three winners.
Technology Brewing Corporation’s winning proposal is for the development of a robot that can pick mushrooms. “B.C. accounts for 30 percent of the mushroom supply in Canada, and yet growth is stymied because companies can’t attract enough pickers,” says Boudreau. “We’re developing a robotic arm with a vision system that can travel along growing beds, monitor mushroom growth, select which mushrooms are ready for harvest, and then pick them.” Boudreau’s company has been developing vision-guided robotic systems since 1985.
Fernanda Whitaker, director, business development for Innovate BC, says it was difficult for the review committee to select only three Agritech Challenge winners: “The proposals we received, for food-processing technology and traceability as well as precision agriculture technology, were outstanding and demonstrated just how much talent we have in this province.”
Whitaker adds, “When we launched the first challenge two years ago we received about 40 applications, and one of the winners, Ecoation, went on to enjoy great investment success for its technology that identifies early-stage pests, diseases and deficiencies in greenhouse plants before they’re able to spread.”
A total of $150,000 in funding is available to winners of the Agritech Challenge. In addition to seed funding, winners receive mentorship support, Market-Validation Training through Innovate BC’s Agriculture Venture Acceleration Program, and other opportunities, to produce and demonstrate a proof-of-concept.
“Our challenges don’t just benefit the winners,” says Whitaker. “Members of our review board provided valuable feedback and recommendations of additional programs and funding sources that can advance the other finalists’ solutions. We want our challenges to not only provide funding, but also value-added services like mentorship, connections, and experience that can directly benefit B.C.-based entrepreneurs.”
For his part, Boudreau hopes to have a robotic mushroom picker ready for commercialization as early as 2020. “The seed money from Innovate BC, along with the mentorship and validation training, is absolutely crucial to our success,” he says.
As a Crown agency representing the government of B.C. and the people who make up the province’s innovation ecosystem, Innovate BC is already looking forward to developing further challenges. “Our job within the overall objective to help industry become more efficient is to find local, innovative solutions that solve their challenges,” Whitaker says, “and the innovation marketplace is proving to be an effective way to advance that goal.”