If I were to choose one player in the Atlantic Canadian startup community to watch this year, it would be McCain Foods.
That’s right: a 62-year-old company known for its French fries will be the big news story in a business group known for its young whippersnappers toting laptops.
I’m making such an incongruous statement because McCain, more than any other traditional business in the region, understands the potential of startups and works most closely with them. This is important because startups only succeed if they grow to seize a global market share. That usually requires a lot of capital, a global sales network, and management with international experience.
Of the few Atlantic Canadian companies that offer these components, McCain Foods has proven the best at working with startups to develop products and get them to market. Its senior executives in the Florenceville, N.B. headquarters include Nestor Gomez, who leads its Startup and Entrepreneurship Program and is respected throughout the startup community.
McCain Foods has relationships with four young innovation companies that I know of. I’ve asked McCain for interviews or information a few times in recent years without success. So the material for this article is drawn from discussions with startup founders, co-investors and public presentations given over the past few years.
We reported a few weeks ago that McCain has now taken over the management of Halifax-based TruLeaf Sustainable Agriculture. Last spring, McCain made its second investment in Fredericton-based Resson as part of a $14 million equity funding round. McCain Foods also works with Fiddlehead Technology of Moncton and Eigen Innovations of Fredericton.
TruLeaf specializes in vertical farming, and will soon open its $16 million plant in Guelph, Ont., which will use data analytics and artificial intelligence to maximize its vegetables’ output and nutritional value. TruLeaf aims to become the North American leader in vertical farming – an ambition that will require so much capital and management expertise that it couldn’t be achieved without the help of a company like McCain Foods.
Resson uses data from farm fields to improve crop output, drawing data from farm equipment, overhead photography and other sources. Gathering meaningful crop data is incredibly difficult as daily weather fluctuations can skew the data, and the soil content in one field will be different from that in another. And data gathered from one strain of plant or specific region may or may not apply to other plants or regions. McCain has been instrumental in working with Resson to develop its systems and build up a large enough databank to become a leader in precision agriculture.
Fiddlehead is developing data analytics systems that help food producers and retailers predict consumer demand. These are intended to help reduce waste and avoid shortages.
Two things are happening with these developments at McCain. First, one of the region’s pre-eminent corporations is drawing on Atlantic Canadian technology to improve its own operations and thrive in the future. It is targeting outdoor and indoor agriculture as well as food production – pillars of a modern food company.
Above and beyond that, a few startups are finding the capital and expertise within Atlantic Canada to reach export markets. That means more of the benefits of the startup movement remain in the region. McCain Foods deserves kudos for showing leadership in this space.