Farmers are known for being natural innovators, and for finding ways of doing things faster, better or easier. What farmer hasn’t thought at least once: “This is a great idea — I bet I could sell it.”
But the reality is that there is a long and difficult road between “the great idea” and a “successful commercial venture.”
Doug Knox, vice-president at BioEnterprise, a not-for-profit company in Guelph, Ont. helps entrepreneurs navigate that difficult path from concept to the revenue-generating phase
BioEnterprise, funded under the Growing Forward 2 program, focuses on products or processes that have a direct connection to food, agriculture or the non-timber forestry industry. Each year Knox consults with 150 to 200 entrepreneurs who are at various stages of the process. Of these, Knox says they do a significant amount of work for 50 to 75 companies.
Knox categorizes the entrepreneurs who approach him into one of three categories. About 15 per cent are at the idea stage. “They want to know how to get started.” About 10 per cent are already in business, but are adding a new product to their lineup. These companies are looking for a mentor or technical assistance.
The other 60 per cent, however, are entrepreneurs at the prototype stage. “They want to know how to get into a commercial path,” says Knox. “Most are at a critical stage and have exhausted all of their own resources.”
For a nominal fee of $500 per month for a six-month period, Knox and his team of associates will provide advisory services. If the business isn’t incorporated, the first step is to get that done (all businesses must be incorporated before BioEnterprise will work with them.) Once that is in place, Knox and his associates can begin assessing the viability of the idea. This includes checking for scientific or intellectual property patents, trademarks or similar designations. Knox’s team will also do a market and competitive analysis to determine the size of the potential market and to explore the strengths and weaknesses of the competition so they can evaluate threats and opportunities.
Armed with this information, the team helps entrepreneurs create their value propositions, i.e. one-sentence statements that sum up why someone should buy their product.
The assessment process will also evaluate whether the innovator would be better off to find a strategic partner to whom they can license the concept to rather than commercializing it themselves.
Knox and his associates will figure out how much capital will be needed to get the product to market and they will look for funding from government grants or loans at the provincial or federal levels. There are additional charges for writing funding proposals or setting up businesses to be “investment ready.”
Regulatory issues are usually the biggest obstacles, says Knox. “The level of regulation is increasing, for example, implements must now meet ISO standards,” he says. Food products may need various certifications, such as kosher or gluten free.
“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” says Knox. “We have to find the pieces to put together.”
Knox cautions it can take substantially longer than people realize for a product to become a commercial success. “Farmers are conservative by nature. They won’t buy until they see an on-the-ground farmer who is championing the product. That’s how the word gets out and it can be a slow process.”
Innovators need to be patient investors, he cautions, as it can take five or more years to see a product take off, he adds.
That observation rings true for Jake Kraayenbrink. He has developed an Automatic Air Inflation-Deflation system that reduces compaction caused by heavy manure tankers. It was in 2009 that the Drayton, Ont. farmer began working on his idea for a system that could quickly deflate manure tanker tires to increase the tire footprint by up to 60 per cent and reduce compaction. The system also quickly reinflates the tires for road travel.
With sales through his company AgriBrink, Kraayenbrink admits it has taken longer than he thought it would for sales to take off. He sees a parallel in the dairy industry where it took a long time for robotic milkers to gain acceptance. “Farmers have been burned before with things that didn’t work well, so they are cautious,” he explains.
BioEnterprise has helped Kraayenbrink by connecting him with a patent lawyer and helping him prepare pricing and marketing materials. Kraayenbrink says he’s still learning and that he’s been grateful for the support of BioEnterprise. “It’s helpful to have someone to bounce ideas off of.”
Kraayenbrink has been working on ISO compatibility for the controller, but it’s an expensive process, he adds, and he admits he has also been disappointed by the lack of funding available. “There’s not as much funding available as I’d hoped,” he says. “Our business is too small, and there’s not enough job creation to qualify for a lot of funding.”
Kraayenbrink says that in addition to reducing compaction, the equipment also reduces tire wear and tear and fuel consumption. Despite the many positive benefits of the equipment which is eligible for funding under Ontario’s GLASI program, business has been slower than he hoped.
Kraayenbrink has participated in many farm shows and had a video made for his website. He has also advertised through farm newspapers and radio. This past year, he hit the road, personally visiting several dairy farms to showcase about the equipment.
Kraayenbrink anticipates that things will take off soon, based on sales of 11 units this past year.
“That’s the best advertising,” he says.
Looking for help to commercialize an idea?
Here is a selection of resources across the country.
Bioenterprise, Guelph, Ont.
bioenterprise.ca – Focuses on food- or ag-related products.
Sumas Regional Consortium for High Tech (SRCTec), Mission, B.C.
srctec.org – Focuses on technology in ag
Ag-West Bio Inc., Saskatoon, Sask.
agwest.sk.ca – This bioscience industry association works with innovators and investors to help bring research to market.
Food Development Centre, Portage la Prairie, Man.
gov.mb.ca – A non-profit, fee-for-service special operating agency under the authority of Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiative, one-stop shop to transform food product ideas into marketable winners.
Canadian Beef Centre of Excellence, Calgary, Alta.
Specializing in beef product research and development.
canadianbeefcentreofexcellence.ca – For food products, look for Centres of Excellence for food and food processing.
Also check with your commodity organizations to see what’s available.