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Alberta funds start-up program in Olds

Provincial government provides money to develop collaboration between Olds College and a business accelerator program

Agricultural startups in Alberta are about to get a shot at the world stage thanks to Olds College and a global Silicon Valley innovation and investment program.

“This is Silicon Valley meets Olds College meets rural Alberta meets farming,” said Doug Schweitzer, provincial minister of jobs, economy and innovation.

“I couldn’t think of a better blend as to what’s happening, and the opportunities ahead for Alberta.”

The provincial government recently announced that $200,000 will be provided to build a partnership between Olds College and Thrive, an accelerator program that supports and grows start-up companies through their infant stages. Thrive was established by venture capital fund SVG Ventures, which is headquartered in California’s Silicon Valley area.

SVG Ventures has built a community of more than 5,000 startups in 100 countries, said founder and CEO John Hartnett.

“We invest, accelerate and we create unparalleled access for those companies,” he said.

Joined by Schweitzer, Alberta Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen made the funding announcement Sept. 29 at the Smart Farm at Olds College. The funding is being provided through the federal-provincial Canadian Agricultural Partnership.

The Smart Farm is a 2,000-acre livestock and grain farm that acts as a giant living laboratory for high-tech agriculture, allowing industry, researchers and students to experience and test a farm of the future in a real-world setting.

Projects at the farm include the Dot power platform, which is a diesel powered, U-shaped mobile frame that can hold agricultural equipment and uses things such as sensors to do farm tasks autonomously, somewhat like a self-driving car. If feasible, robotics in the field at a large scale could change the way agriculture is practised in Western Canada.

The funding announcement marks an important investment toward Olds College that will help it facilitate its relationship with Thrive, said college president Stuart Cullum.

“What it’s going to do is it’s going to help us develop a curriculum for the development of the accelerator program that’s going to be part of SVG Thrive’s offering,” he said.

The funding will also “allow the development of a sort of testing ground” at Olds College, he added.

“We really want to see the college as the place where technology and startups are tested and developed to scale.”

Olds College announced Sept. 24 it was receiving nearly $1 million from the provincial government’s Research Capacity Program (RCP) for computers, sensors, devices and agricultural equipment to boost agricultural technology research at the Smart Farm.

“Alberta is at the forefront when it comes to AI (artificial intelligence) and machine learning, and there are applications for that in every area of our lives, including agriculture,” said Schweitzer.

Agriculture is a bright spot in Alberta’s current economy, said Dreeshen, who is himself a fifth-generation farmer. The province has been pummelled by both the COVID-19 pandemic and a downturn in the oil and gas industry.

“There’s really no better way to explain the importance of food processing in Alberta than to see it firsthand and to see how many good-paying jobs it creates here in the province,” said Dreeshen.

The initiative between Olds College and Thrive will help showcase “the possibilities of combining Silicon Valley technology investment with Alberta agribusiness startups,” he said.

Schweitzer, who is overseeing Alberta’s economic recovery plan, said the initiative is part of a “provincial strategy to be at the forefront of technology, and that leads to high-paying jobs as we take these ideas and turn them into businesses as we turn them into jobs of the future.”

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