Economic Development 101: The big one that didn’t get away

By Bruce Johnstone

It’s not every day that an economic development agency gets to play a key role in bringing an industry to its region that could generate more than $10 billion in economic activity and more than 4,500 jobs in 10 years.

But that’s exactly what happened when Protein Industries Canada was announced as one of five winning consortia in the federal government’s Innovation Superclusters Initiative (ISI).

ISI is a $950-million program to establish “superclusters’’ or areas of dense economic activity that will “energize regional economies, help build a skilled workforce, enhance Canada’s global competitiveness and create thousands of well-paying jobs,’’ according to Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada.

What is a supercluster? It is a made-in-Canada Silicon Valley, or in this case five Silicon Valleys that will create potentially tens of thousands of jobs.

Protein Industries Canada (PIC) was one of nine consortia shortlisted for funding out of more than 50 proposals involving 1,000 firms and 350 organizations and associations. PIC is an alliance of more than 120 private sector companies, academic institutions, research facilities, and non-profit organizations, based in Western Canada, which is aimed at developing the full potential of plant-based protein from oilseed and pulse crops.

With strengths in crop production and value-added processing, along with world-class transportation infrastructure and agricultural technology, we have ability to make this region a “powerhouse food-producer for the world,’’ said John Lee, president and CEO of Economic Development Regina.

“The GRA has an opportunity to become a centre of excellence in the application of technology and innovation to plant protein production,” Lee said.

And EDR played a major role in helping PIC secure ISI funding. “EDR is proud to have been an integral and collaborative partner in this initiative,” Lee added.

By working behind the scenes as a facilitator, catalyst and co-ordinator, EDR helped to bring PIC’s partners together in common cause and succeed in being selected as one of five national superclusters.

PIC’s objective is to make Canada into a leading source of plant proteins to feed a growing world population, which will be 30% larger and require up to two times the crop protein by 2050.

“Plant-based protein is a $13-billion market of which Canada currently has a minimal share,’’ says Frank Hart, managing director of Regina-based TD Greystone Managed Investments and chair of PIC’s board of directors.  “We need to seize this opportunity before our competitors do.’’

PIC will receive up to $153 million in federal funding, which will supplement the $400 million in cash, in-kind commitments and venture capital investment already secured by PIC’s members. PIC’s head office is in Regina, but its work is not limited to Regina or Saskatchewan.

“This has huge implications for the western Canadian economy,’’ Hart said. “Farmers, service companies, value-added processors, academic institutions, consumers and through spinoff benefits, everyone on the prairies and throughout Canada will stand to benefit.”

The prairie region is a natural fit for a pulse-based supercluster as it already produces a large amount of the chickpeas, lentils and split peas consumed around the world. In 2016, Saskatchewan grew 99% of Canada’s chickpeas and 88% of the country’s lentil production.

In particular, the Greater Regina Area (GRA), which is home to the world’s largest value-added pulse crop processor and exporter, AGT Food and Ingredients, will be a major hub of activity for PIC.

The GRA is the centre of plant protein crop production and “the first stop on the plant protein highway,’’ according to Murad Al-Katib, president and CEO of AGT.

EDR has begun the next phase of the PIC initiative, with a focus on attracting investment and offering programming that will position the Regina region as a food processing, agriculture technology and agriculture venture capital centre Lee says they will work to activate the regional plant-protein supply chain cluster with emphasis on indigenous engagement and business creation.

But Lee would be the first to admit that such massive projects, while vitally important, are few and far between.

“Most of EDR’s day-to-day work involves supporting local businesses, helping entrepreneurs succeed and promoting the city as a great place to live, work and invest,” says Lee. “Growing existing local businesses is the key to long-term economic growth. That’s why we emphasize supporting new and growing companies, because they will create most of the jobs for our new residents in the long haul.