PROGRAM PARTNERS STUDENTS WITH INNOVATORS
BY TIMOTHY FOWLER • PHOTO COURTESY OF OLDS COLLEGE
Introducing students to new technology has been part of the Olds College mandate since its inception in 1913. On its Smart Farm, launched in 2018, students continue to utilize the latest in operational farm technology. Given its fully digital infrastructure, the facility is a logical place for students and ag tech startups to collaborate and prove the value of new agricultural technology to farmers.
Zone Startups Calgary (ZSC) is part of Ryerson Futures, a subsidiary of Toronto’s Ryerson University. Operating in Canada, India and Vietnam, the business accelerator searches for promising technology startups to mentor and support as these companies move from proven concept to commercialization. “When companies come to us with technology, we use our corporate partners to help validate what they are doing,” said Joe Martini, ZSC director. This means determining whether there is market interest in the new initiative.
“They need a place to prove the technology works,” said Jason Bradley, Olds College director of Smart Ag. “For the innovator, it gives them a place to validate and demonstrate and also helps them become part of the ag ecosystem. That gets them introduced to other larger multinationals who may be looking to acquire that technology once it is proven.”
A mutual acquaintance from Farm Credit Canada introduced Bradley to Martini, thinking that each of their organizations would benefit by working together. The resulting partnership allows Olds College students to gain real world product development experience and have access to the newest ag technology. ZSC gains a wired farm space in which companies can test their products. In turn, the agriculture industry benefits from the introduction of new tools and technologies.In fall 2019, Olds College and ZSC formalized their partnership with a memorandum of understanding. With the agreement in place, students can now use new technologies before they are commercially available. The college also assists with commercialization, helping innovators get their products into the hands of farmers quicker. While students make industry connections that may broaden their career opportunities, the new data technologies they assist in developing may subsequently help farmers to make more informed agronomic decisions.
Also, as ag tech developers utilize the Smart Farm to prove their products’ benefits, students and startup staff also have access to ZSC’s experts and corporate partners. Backers of the initiative include UFA Co-operative, GE Canada, Baker Hughes Co. and Telus.
Mark Olson is the owner and developer of flokk, a purpose-built, hand-held field computer that facilitates herd management by tracking ear tags. Olson’s goal was to create a practical and effective solution that farmers are willing to pay for. The system allows livestock handlers to easily input tracking data specific to each animal.
Receiving objective assessment is the key to developing new technology, Olson believes. “Look for input early and often,” he said. Using student input based on their use of flokk helped Olson refine his product and then conduct a full field test with an Alberta cattle farmer. Testing the technology in the field, Smart Farm and ZSC proved flokk’s potential value to farmers. Olson expects to have the system ready for purchase in 2021.