When Lethbridge College received federal funding in April of 2020 to create one of just 13 new Technology Access Centres (TACs) across Canada, Megan Shapka knew it would be a big, yet rewarding, task.
Shortly afterwards, the Integrated Agriculture Technology Centre (IATC) was up and running to help farmers, growers and food processors tap into the latest research and recognized expertise at the college, located in a city of nearly 100,000 that’s a little more than 120 kilometres north of the American border.
“There’s a huge demand for agriculture research in southern Alberta,” says Shapka, who took on the job of managing the IATC as part of her role as associate dean in the Centre for Applied Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Lethbridge College. “The whole point is to have this really robust ecosystem to support companies as they start up and then the trend now is to help companies as they grow and scale.”
Amanda Hehr is the president of Sunterra Greenhouse, based in Acme, Alberta, about 80 kilometres northeast of Calgary. She says that her company is grateful for the opportunity to work with the new IATC to support studies that will benefit all controlled-climate growers in Canada.
“Food security is an important topic, and the pace of innovation is staggering,” Hehr said. “The studies that IATC is leading will help to develop a better understanding of how the Canadian greenhouse industry can leverage new technology and best growing practices to increase production yield and quality.”
Through collaborating with other members of the Regional Innovation Network of Southern Alberta (RINSA), Shapka has been able to raise the profile of the IATC to spread the word about the relatively new entity.
“It helps us connect to those start-ups and companies that need our research,” says Shapka, who adds that the IATC is federally funded through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) by way of a five-year renewable grant of $1.75 million. “The whole point is to support an ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship, so there’s a lot of cross-referral that happens between the partners that are involved with RINSA, the wider Alberta Innovation Network, other TACs and other post-secondary research offices.”
Formed in 2011 as a collaborative partnership between Alberta Innovates with Economic Development Lethbridge/Tecconnect, Lethbridge College as well as the University of Lethbridge, RINSA has since grown to more than 10 member organizations.
“The Lethbridge region is very collaborative and relationship-based, so when we bring a group of people together like we have with RINSA, everybody comes with a passion of wanting to make a difference to wanting to contribute to this ecosystem and work together to create a level playing field for entrepreneurs here,” says Renae Barlow, vice president of Entrepreneurship and Innovation for Economic Development Lethbridge/Tecconnect.
According to Brandie Lea, University of Lethbridge’s Partnerships and Commercialization coordinator, RINSA helps the post-secondary institution connect with external partners to help them solve business and innovation challenges. They also discover ways to apply research happening on campus.
“RINSA has been really supportive of our faculty, students and innovators on campus by helping to connect them with funding, entrepreneurial training and other forms of support. A few of the applied research areas that have been supported are pharmaceutical and biotechnology, agriculture and fine arts, resulting in great partnerships, additional funding and new innovations. We appreciate being a part of an organization that helps our campus and community grow,” Lea says.
Both Lethbridge College and Lethbridge University strive to serve the entire community surrounding the vibrant southern Alberta city.
“From our point of view, we really do look at the college and university as being regional assets to us,” says Bev Thornton, executive director of Alberta SouthWest Regional Alliance, which is based in Pincher Creek, about 70 kilometres from the U.S.-Canadian border. “All of us are connected to those institutions in some way or another, so this just helps strengthen that communication between our rural communities and these wonderful institutions that we’ve got.” Since agriculture helps drive the southern Alberta economy, the development of the IATC is a benefit to the entire region, Thornton says.
“It becomes a place where we can refer people to take advantage of the research capacity,” she says. “That really is a regional asset that works for all of us.”