Calgary poised to host the world’s agro-biotech community

by • July 16, 2013 • Agri-Food, Bio-Medical, Feature Slider, HealthComments (0)1889

It’s the biggest conference of its kind in the world and after six years, it’s making its return to Calgary, Alberta.

Taking place September 15 to 18 at the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre, the Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference (ABIC) will feature a heavy lineup of speakers covering an array of topics from across the agro-bio spectrum. Devoted to science and business development in agro-biotech, ABIC brings the top people in agricultural biotechnology from around the world together to talk about the challenges, issues and problems the sector faces as well as focuses on the inter-relationship agriculture has with other aspects of our lives.

Hosting the event has brought excitement not just to the agro community in Alberta, but also to other industries in the province. And there’s no denying that the success of 2007 also had an impact on the decision to bring the conference back. Last time around, delegates were very impressed with the accommodations, the venue, and the relative easiness of getting to and from Calgary. Even more so, they were impressed with what they saw from the agro-biotech community in the province.

“It was a very simple decision to bring the world back to Alberta as the agro industry here is very strong and has a long history. Both Calgary and Alberta are major players not just in Canada, but globally and it’s been established that Western Canada is developing a reputation as being a significant global centre for agro-biotech, especially in the crop biosciences,” says Art Froehlich, chair of the Steering Committee for ABIC 2013.

“Bringing the Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference to Alberta in 2013 is recognition of Alberta’s dynamic life sciences community, internationally recognized talent and world class infrastructure and local industry is excited to showcase what’s happening here,” adds Amanda Stadel, acting president at BioAlberta. “To have local access to a conference with this kind of global reach and have the world come to us is definitely something that the local biotechnology industry embraces.”

What makes hosting ABIC in Calgary even more special, explains Froehlich, is that the event originated in Canada, with the first ABIC held in Saskatoon in 1996. Coming back to Canada is always special for those organizing the event.

“The event while international has always remained intrinsically tied to its Canadian roots. I think in every industry there are locations that tend to be centres of excellence. In Canada, Saskatoon has long been established as such a centre for agro-bio dating back 20 years, with the National Research Council’s Prairie Region Laboratories, the strengths of the University of Saskatchewan and Innovation Place. The latter is home to a number of start-ups in the agro-bio space, and a number of international companies like Dow AgroSciences and Monsanto. It’s also home to the ABIC Foundation itself. Alberta, like Saskatchewan, is home to a strong industry presence when it comes to agro-bio, with company head offices for companies such as Bayer CropScience and Dow AgroSciences and phenomenal research going on in our universities and research centres.”

Froehlich and other event organizers say they are quite pleased with the diversity of the registration and organizations that will attend. He adds that it is very reflective of how the event, as well as the ABIC Foundation itself, has become more global over the years. Almost two decades since the first ABIC was held in Saskatoon, the event has been to other parts of the world, including Germany, South Africa, Australia, Thailand, and Ireland, and has attracted delegates from 68 countries.

This year’s conference will focus on the role of agro biotechnology in agriculture, energy, preventative health (both human and animal) and investment. While issues such as meeting the growing demand for food and green products, as well as the development of sustainable biofuels, is always at the top of the agenda, ABIC has always been more than just a showcase. First and foremost it is a forum for dialogue aimed at enhancing science and business intelligence, ensuring identification of opportunities.

“I think one of the biggest reasons ABIC resonates for the delegates is the opportunity to network in a casual setting. If you’re a large multinational, the ABIC is an opportunity for you to give the delegates your view of the world, where you’re going and what are some of the technologies and areas of interest you have. If you’re a smaller company or a government regulator, you get a chance to hear from both small and large firms about what some of the challenges are in operating in this space, to learn lessons, and how to best overcome these challenges,” says Froehlich.

He explains what sets this year’s ABIC apart is that it has a very commercial focus.

“That’s not to say the science itself is to be ignored, but rather that many of the sessions are focused on helping the scienitific community to go beyond just understanding discovery, and to show them how they can match their scientific endeavours to what the market and the public needs.”

In all, there will be four streams: 1. The Impact of Biotechnology on Water and Nutrient Uptake by Plants; 2. Impact of Biotechnology on the Global Energy Industry; 3. Ag Biotechnology in Bio-Derived Products and; 4. Feeding a Hungry World.

“On display will be a unique combination of not only the hardcore ideas of where agricultural biotechnology is going in the coming years, but also how advancements will impact other industries,” says event co-chair Rob Rennie. Rennie believes it is on this last point that the true benefit of hosting the ABIC in Calgary will be realized.

“Quite frankly, if anyone thinks of Alberta, industries such as oil, gas and real estate typically come to mind. For this reason, we’ve devoted an entire session on the provincial impacts of ag-biotech on the oil and gas industry. These industries have always been chemical by nature, but presently, not all advancements for these industries are chemical, more and more it’s becoming biological. As examples, there are advancements being made in CO2 capture bioremediation, we’re now in the third generation of biofuels, and we’re seeing new technologies for biomass degradation and bio-derived petrochemicals starting to emerge. In each of these the traditional chemistry-based energy industry is starting to understand the potential of biotechnology and we’re starting to see a cross-pollination of innovative ideas.”

Amanda Stadel agrees, citing the huge potential agro-biotech has in taking sectors such as oil, gas and energy to new heights, especially in the province of Alberta itself.

“There’s great opportunity for the life sciences industry here to be able to assist with things such as biological remediation of the oil sands, to harvest local biomass and use it as biofuel. There are so many possible synergies that can be shared between these two sides, and having them in the same room could lead to many new and exciting initiatives,” she said.

As such, one of the key presenters at ABIC 2013 is Gwyn Morgan, former chairman of the board of SNC-Lavalin and a past director on the boards of several other large corporations in Canada, including EnCana Corporation. He will be part of the Impact of Biotechnology on the Global Energy Industry Stream.

“He’s a very prominent former executive in the oil and gas industry. What we’re hoping to do with this session is bring major international players in oil and gas, many that are in fact based in Alberta, to show them the opportunities ag-biotech has to offer and establish dialogue between us and them, and hopefully encourage collaboration,” says Rennie.

The investment forum on day three is also unique to this year’s ABIC program, where the hope is to link venture capitalists and private equity firms with start-up companies. As both Rennie and Froehlich explain, most investors haven’t been exposed enough to this sector, so the conference will give the industry a chance to showcase what they have in the pipeline to the investor community. Likewise, and perhaps more importantly, the forum itself will help inform the industry what it needs to do to attract investor interest.

“One of the challenges in biotech in Canada in general is you have good science, but translating this good science into marketable products is a challenge. It requires investment that is not readily available. Likewise, the agro-bio entrepreneur may be very good at the science, but the role of financing a company is totally new to them. So this will be a forum to educate agro-bio entrepreneurs, to tell them what investors are looking for in terms of new technologies. Conversely, the venture capital and private equity guys aren’t exposed very often to the agro-biotechnology industry. They know what companies like Monsanto and Syngenta are doing with genetically engineered seed, but they don’t know all the other opportunities that are out there and what they’re doing,” says Rennie.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the conference, Froehlich adds, is that it will also include the end-user of all these innovative products and technologies in the discussion, the farmers themselves.

“That’s the idea really, and what pushes advancements in our sector forward,” says Froehlich. “At the end of the day we want to ask them after hearing the presenters, ‘You’re the famers, you’re the end users, what’s the value to you in terms of these innovative products?’ There is a huge benefit to hearing what it is they have to say.”

For more information on the conference, visit www.abic.ca/abic2013.

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