Understanding the very nature of innovation


   Alex Drysdale, founder of Crik Nutrition
Rural Innovation in Manitoba (RIM): Reducing Barriers to Commercialization and Growing Capacity
 
In its latest set of recommendations that came out in February 2017, Canada’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth said the country needs to significantly strengthen its capacity to innovate and commercialize new ideas. The report singled out the agriculture and food sector as one example where there is potential for substantial growth and export improvement.
 
It’s not just policy makers talking this way. It’s an idea that is gaining traction among farmers, researchers, businesses and investors. For example, Jim Balsillie, the former co-CEO of BlackBerry and co-founder of the Institute for New Economic Thinking was recently quoted by the Globe and Mail saying “food and beverage is the sector with the fastest growth of patents granted, because in the 21st century food is a tech game.”
 
Comments and reports like this re-affirm Bill Ashton’s opinion that his team’s focus on innovation in food and food development is on the right track.
 
Ashton is the director of the Rural Development Institute at Brandon University and he leads the team behind the Rural Innovation in Manitoba (RIM) project: Reducing Barriers to Commercialization and Growing Capacity.
 
This group recently completed a series of case studies, just released, that look at the business path taken by successful agri-food innovators in the province including Solberry Incorporated, The Canadian Birch Company, Crik Nutrition and Floating Leaf Fine Foods.
 
“These case studies follow several other projects we’ve completed and continue to examine ways to accelerate growth and innovation in the food processing industry,” explained Ashton. “How does innovation occur and how do we improve efficiency to reduce the time it takes to bring a product to market?”
 
The case studies have two main purposes: first, to identify systemic barriers impacting the commercialization cycle as experienced by existing agri-food innovators and, second, to explore the very nature and definition of innovation.
 
“When defining innovation, there are four types to which we refer: product, process development, marketing and promotion,” says Ashton. “In food processing, we generally focus on product and process development, but our research reaches beyond this standard. We have chosen to go deeper with innovators and others when looking at innovation in the agri-food business.”
 
To this end, the researchers interviewed the innovators as well as the stakeholders who helped the food producers get to market - through process development, financial support and technical consulting - in order to gain an understanding of how those who were involved in the process view their contribution to agri-food innovation.
 
This is one of the unique approaches defining the RIM project, as it looks at food processing and commercialization in a more holistic way.
 
“It takes us to a broader definition of innovation from one man or woman to more of a team sport, including time, challenges and leadership skills,” said Ashton.
 
Alex Drysdale, founder of Crik Nutrition, believes that having this sort of transparency and shared knowledge available will help other food entrepreneurs down the line to better plan and prepare to launch their businesses.
 
“Other food innovators can see the studies and get a sense of the various stages of development involved, as well as see that they are not alone in the struggles of innovating and starting a new company from scratch,” said Drysdale.
 
The RIM project began in the fall of 2015 and is expected to be completed at the end of September 2017.
 
The next steps in the project are to examine the research to begin to understand the culture surrounding innovation, including discovering who tends to be innovative and who supports these innovators; how much time it takes to bring a product from idea to market; and if chain innovation exists in the agri-food industry. From this, the project co-ordinators hope to be able to recommend the best ways to support innovation development.