September 24, 2020
AN IRRESISTIBLE INVITATION
Shortly after Bryan Inglis became C.E.O. of Food Island Partnership (F.I.P.) in 2016, he convened a roundtable of food sector participants large and small -- from industry giant Cavendish Farms with 16,000 employees to a family-run small-batch craft distillery -- and asked a very simple question: what do you need? The ensuing conversation, supported by a creatively driven alliance of businesses, researchers. technologists, and government agencies that constitutes the P.E.I. Food Cluster, fosters a vibrant ecosystem that has placed Prince Edward Island in an enviable position. The refrain “what do you need” continues to drive them to this day, with a focus on listening, identifying gaps, and turning problems into innovative solutions.
Merging the P.E.I. AgriAlliance and P.E.I. Culinary Alliance, F.I.P. created its first formalized programming to support the Cluster and forge a foundation for business success, an advance on the one-on-one counseling that predominated before. "We developed a broader strategic outlook to become a catalyst for growth," says Inglis, "responding to the limitations we perceived that held our members back."
F.I.P.'s Food Xcel program attracts 30-40 aspiring food entrepreneurs annually as they evaluate their business concepts through a fourteen-week series of workshops and networking opportunities, with the chance to compete for a $25,000 award from Innovation P.E.I.'s Ignition Fund. "They learned to utilize our ecosystem, pitch their products, and determine if their dreams were viable with a unique selling proposition," says Inglis. "Six became start-up businesses, and others were inspired to go back to the drawing board and try again. There are things to be learned from failure, too."
F.I.P. next developed the FoodPropel program in response to a second perceived gap. "We were feeding the pipeline with startups, but many were hitting the wall, unsure how to get to the next level," says Inglis. The year-long intensive Food Propel program features a concentrated cohort of six companies in their growth stage transitioning through the accelerator experience. They benefit from teams of expert mentors, hands-on training, market research, industry networking, and access to a growth fund. "The mentorship aspect has been identified as a key and ongoing part of their success," says Inglis. "So much so, that we've introduced a second year to the program for participants to continue interacting with their mentors as they advance and grow."
A third program -- the Special Services Fund -- was launched last year to fill another gap in the sector's core development. "Many companies require long-term mentoring to thrive, but some have a singular problem that needs a targeted focus to be solved," says Inglis. Created with the Atlantic Canada Opportunity Agency (A.C.O.A.) and Innovation P.E.I., this new Fund allows Island food companies to cost share specialist services to meet their individual goals.
Central to F.I.P.'s advancement of top-quality food products, primary producers and food entrepreneurs is the engaged network of collaborative support agencies that comprises the P.E.I. Food Cluster. "P.E.I. has one of the strongest food clusters in North America. Working together, we deliver a very unique and effective program. Other clusters have their own resources, but they don’t have our partnership ecosystem; some have biofoodtech-type entities, but they lack our cohesive programs,” says Inglis.
Key pillars of this Cluster ecosystem include F.I.P. (the central coordinating body for food companies and new partnerships); Canada's Smartest Kitchen (creating market-validated solutions for food product development); BioFoodTech (providing professional technical services from food concept to market); P.E.I. BioAlliance and the Emergence Bioscience Business Incubator (a virtual business incubator focused on food to pharma), as well as the National Research Council (Canada's premier research and technology organization); the Protein Supercluster, Protein Industries Canada (developing and commercializing value-added products); and Food & Beverage Atlantic (advancing the food processing industry). "I'm proud of the way we all pull together to overcome challenges, and the speed at which we can move, adapt and grow," says Inglis.
The strength of the ecosystem is reflected in the breadth of innovative new strategies F.I.P. is developing, including light manufacturing support for emerging P.E.I. companies and off-Island entities seeking to take advantage of P.E.I. ingenuity. "As new companies grow, a recurring impediment to maturing in the marketplace is the startup cost of purchasing manufacturing space," says Inglis. "We're looking to develop a new space where companies can live for three or four years. They may start at Canada’s Smartest Kitchen, move to BioFoodTech, and then transition to our new facility without the enormous cost of purchasing industrial space as they scale up."
Other innovations currently being pursued include a new prototype of Food Xcel for tourism food operators to develop culinary tourism and Island food experiences; myriad value-added food products including blueberry antioxidants, vegan cheese, and cannabis value-added products; the profitable transformation of food waste such as lobster shell extract; plant-based proteins; and food packaging solutions responding to the world's food-safety and contamination concerns.
F.I.P. has also structured strategic opportunities to communicate P.E.I.'s food story to Island residents, new and existing visitors, and export markets around the world. Its "Canada's Food Island" brand promotes P.E.I. as an innovative source of premium food products and food tourism defined by its key exports: lobster, potatoes, oysters, mussels and beef. The popular P.E.I. Fall Flavours Festival engages Island residents, visitors and acclaimed guest chefs in a month-long culinary celebration of P.E.I. food products across the province. Forage Prince Edward Island is a chef-driven-and-designed two-day conference promoting networking, education and the formulation of Island food stories. And Certified Island Beef is a premium beef brand that ensures P.E.I.'s place in this niche market and premium prices for Island cattle producers.
It's no wonder that Bryan Inglis sees an exceptional future for the food sector in P.E.I. "Other provinces and people I've talked to in the U.S. are envious. They have facilities, but they don't have the business side or the chef-inspired side. In that, we're unique. It's time we told our story to the world. If you're interested in the food scene, you need to be here, stay here, and build your business here. We listen, understand and deliver what the industry needs. We do food innovation here."
By Magner Ink (www.magnerink.com). This is one in a series of articles on the P.E.I. Food Cluster.