Inside Canada’s digital food innovation hub

By Jaz Low

Joseph Lake, Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Food Innovation Network shares how the organisation is helping to catalyse innovation for the growth of the Canadian agriculture and agri-food sector. 

In trying to understand how cut-throat the food industry is, look no further than the nearest supermarket. From the legion of brands that desperately clamour for limited aisle space to the relentless price war instigated by industry giants, hyper-competition has fueled a new age in grocery shopping.

But the Canadian Food Innovation Network (CFIN) is turning this rivalry on its head. The organisation aims to enhance connectivity among players in the food ecosystem instead. Aside from hosting an interactive online community on its YODL platform, the CFIN will provide its members with mentorship and funding opportunities to harness food tech.

Joseph Lake, Chief Executive Officer of the CFIN shares how the organisation plans to champion a stronger and more sustainable food system in Canada.

Begone food waste!

In the march towards a more eco-friendly food system, Lake highlights that cutting back on food waste can lead to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

For example, there are refrigeration and freezer trucks that can detect the spoilage rate of produce. This reduces food waste by allowing fast-expiring food to get re-routed to the nearest supermarket, while those in ripe condition can withstand longer distances and travel to more remote grocery stores.

Aside from transportation, data can also play a pivotal role in mitigating food waste. Foodtech company SJW Robotics builds autonomous restaurants that serve made-to-order meals. Supporting its eateries at the backend is data, which the company uses to estimate customer footfall and navigate meal preparation.

“If there is a concert happening nearby, the restaurant can expect larger crowds and will have to stock up their inventory,” Lake notes. Conversely, in the event of an incoming blizzard, the restaurant can expect fewer patrons and will have to portion out ingredients accordingly.

Canada has a small population relative to its large geography. People are not the only ones scattered all over the country – so are recycling and treatment facilities. “It can be difficult to collect and process food waste in a timely manner, but the above initiatives may provide some assistance,” Lake explains.

A leader in food safety

Canada is consistently recognised for having one of the strongest food safety in the world, according to the Global Food Security Index. Lake mentions two innovations that are only solidifying the country’s position.

Biotech company Index Biosystems is revolutionising traceability technology. By digitising the genetic code of yeast, one can easily track its journey throughout the food supply chain. This allows food handlers to mitigate the risks associated with product contamination, strengthening product safety.

Having a strong food safety system also means that manufacturers comply with rules and regulations. But the extensive paperwork involved could mean that getting certified is an incredibly bureaucratic and tedious process.

Software development company Foodbyte is here to save the day. They help small teams automate food safety by emailing employees with the food safety tasks due each day so that documents don’t pile up.

The Foodbyte software also generates necessary forms whenever an issue arises, stores completed forms safely on a cloud, and even exports them for use in audits.

This allows manufacturers to spend less time sifting through files and hastens the speed at which they can roll out new products into the market, Lake shares.

A community that strives for the betterment of the food industry

Canada’s vast food ecosystem is made up of many individual components. Food and beverage manufacturers, packaging and equipment companies, as well as grocery retailers and distributors are only a small makeup of the country’s food network.

But for Canada’s food supply chain to stand tall and strong, collaboration is of the essence. This is where the CFIN comes in, stringing different sectors of the industry together with the same thread – its YODL platform.

The website is exclusively for CFIN members and serves a few functions.

First, members can look forward to receiving one-to-one mentorship on the platform. CFIN’s Regional Innovation Directors are dedicated to helping companies access funding and promote partnerships with other food ecosystem players. This ensures that enterprises do not miss out on any opportunity to grow their businesses.

Second, members can tap on the CFIN’s library of resources to gain more insight into the industry. The curated database features white papers and highlights from previous webinars.

For example, the CFIN’s ‘Robotics In Action’ event showcased food companies that used automation to overcome labour shortages, reduce energy consumption, and deliver consistent products to customers. The findings could benefit those who are keen on venturing into this area, Lake shares.

Members can also retrieve other useful information, such as the location of nearby food test labs, through the platform. “This could help a company that is keen on making granola bars, for example, to access the amenities they need,” he elaborates.

Third, the shared space allows members to network. They can exchange business practices, share consumer trends, and pose questions to other users through the platform. “We hope to create a dynamic and engaged community that works together to improve the food ecosystem as a whole,” Lake says.

Canada’s gateway to food innovation

The other part of the CFIN work revolves around funding food innovation.

In line with its emphasis on partnerships, the biannual Food Innovation Challenge is reserved for multi-stakeholder collaboration projects. CFIN will review projects ranging from CA$1 to CA$4 million and contribute 50 per cent of costs.

In June this year, the theme focused on the digitisation and digitalisation of the food supply chain. The CFIN awarded around CA$2 million for an initiative that develops interconnected smart appliances to create fully autonomous kitchens. The project aims to improve ingredient preparation, cold storage efficiency, and the accuracy of automated ingredient portioning and dispensing.

Meanwhile, the annual Food Booster Challenge targets the small and medium-sized businesses that make up the bulk of Canada’s food ecosystem. CFIN will look at projects ranging from CA$20,000 to CA$200,000 and similarly fork out half of the costs.

Recently, they presented biotech firm Canadian Pacifico Seaweeds with a little over CA$93,000 to scale up the extraction, activation, and utilisation of nutrients found in Pacific seaweeds. Ensuring that Canadians have access to healthy food happens to be one of CFIN’s side quests as well.

The organisation will continue to accelerate innovation in Canada by providing mentorship and securing investments across the country’s food ecosystem. But above all, CFIN hopes to foster a sense of community amongst its members and strengthen the food network. After all, alone we can do so little, together we can achieve so much.