Driving home the value of innovation

New technology adoption transcends a series of steps, and people, on its way to finding a fit in society. First, a handful of venturesome innovators take a chance on it before anyone else even hears about it. Then come the early adopters, highly visible public opinion leaders who turn heads when they start using a new technology in their community. They're followed by what's called the deliberate early majority, who are characterized by being successful but safe. And finally, the late majority and laggards clean up the rear. You can guess their traits.

People drive innovation, and for the agri-food sector, our region has become an innovation nirvana. The intellectual capacity that's been amassed in the life sciences over the past 20 years is unparalleled in Canada. Much of it stems from the positive relationship between the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the University of Guelph, particularly the ministry's commitment to long-term research and faculty support. This has paved the way for innovative thinkers to approach research as a series of interconnected programs rather than individual short-term projects, and develop innovations that have made Ontario Canada's top agri-food province. You can find many of them by exploring the university's research website at www.uoguelph.ca/research.

Combine that innovative thinking with Ontario's leadership in automotive production — which has made us the No. 1 jurisdiction in North America, surpassing even Michigan — and you're really onto something.

That's what's happening in our midst right now. Late last week, the provincial Ministry of Research and Innovation gave $255,000 to the Ontario BioAuto Council (www.bioautocouncil.com) to advance the combination of agri-food products and car parts. This innovative group, headquartered at the Ontario AgriCentre in Guelph, has come together to turn traditional farm commodities into gold. It will use the money for developing an overarching research and innovation strategy, investment attraction and communications.

Sound like a long shot? Well, consider that auto-parts companies make up more than 45 per cent of the top 25 employers in Guelph. Researchers at the university are already doing world-class studies on biofibres — in this case, agricultural fibres from soy, hemp and wheat — under the BioCar research project, with industry support from Ford Canada. Consider that Polycon, a subsidiary of Magna-International (a BioAuto Council member), is producing 10,000 bumper fascias a day at its Guelph facility. And bumper fascias could be one of the first applications for bio-based plastics.

Commodity groups have all identified bioproducts as a market opportunity for their crops. The Ontario Soybean Growers, which just finished its annual meeting, is probably the most aggressive, and likewise is represented on the council.

Innovators are dreamers, by design. But in this case, some of the dreams are starting to be realized. For example, the new Mercedes S-class series has 27 bio-based components — door and pillar inners, ceiling and trunk components among them. Corn, soybeans, sugar beets, potatoes and trees can all be broken down into starches that can be used to make materials ranging from flexible foam to rigid plastic.

The stakes are high. If Ontario can capture 25 per cent of the global market in bioparts, it stands to gain $3 billion a year in finished product sales. And that's not to mention the benefit for farmers, who would have another new market, and the environment, which could gain from renewable products being used in vehicles.

So the new investment into Guelph's innovation hub, about $250,000, has a lot of potential to grow into something big. Odds are it will, if the products perform well and can be steadily produced. That's where the research will now begin. But it wouldn't have had anywhere to start without the agri-food visionaries who worked hard to build the critical mass here to make innovation happen, and the government support for faculty and long-term studies. That foresight continues to pay dividends for the people of Ontario, and beyond.

Owen Roberts teaches agricultural communications at the University of Guelph.

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