Halifax Becoming a Hub for Agtech and Foodtech companies

Posted: September 28, 2022

Not many of us get a warm, fuzzy feeling going to the supermarket these days, but Gregg Curwin did recently.

The Halifax serial entrepreneur was strolling down the aisles when he spied a selection of Good Leaf Farms microgreens on the shelf. Good Leaf grew out of Truleaf Sustainable Agriculture, the company Curwin founded in 2009 to improve food security through indoor agriculture.

Continuing with his shopping, Curwin soon noticed the store was also selling bottles of Sperri, the naturally sourced meal replacements made by Curwin’s new company, Halifax-based Novagevity.

Curwin was a pioneer in foodtech or agritech in Halifax when he launched Trueleaf more than a decade ago, and now he’s one of a hub of entrepreneurs in the capital developing technology that can improve food in different ways. Whether they’re revolutionizing fertilizer, producing a new food, or detecting diseases in dairy herds, the common element among these companies is that they all aim to improve what we eat. And as they have grown, the ecosystem for foodtech and agtech has become more and more sophisticated.

“It’s easier now,” said Curwin in an interview, thinking about the changes he’s seen in the past decade. “Back in my day with Truleaf, we were creating a new way of farming so it was difficult for investors to understand what we were doing. Fast forward to today and investors understand what we’re doing instantly. . . . But yet, there’s a lot that’s the same. From my experience, the fundamentals are the same. I still communicate to investors that we are changing the way people eat.”

Though Halifax is an urban centre, it has built up an impressive roster of companies that are changing food-production and agriculture – an industry traditionally found in more pastoral settings. There are a few common themes among them. Many have come to the Halifax area from other parts of Canada or the world, and several have attended accelerators outside of Canada. Most of these companies have raised millions of dollars in the capital. And all are benefiting from an ecosystem that extends far beyond Halifax.

Consider, for example, SomaDetect, which ticks all the boxes listed in the previous paragraph. Founded in New Brunswick in 2016, SomaDetect makes an in-line sensor that measures the quality and health of milk from every cow in a herd at every milking. Led by CEO Bethany Deshpande, the company combines sensor readings with deep-learning algorithm and graphs to assess each cow’s health in real-time. The company, which moved to Halifax a few years ago, won US$1 million after being judged the top startup in the Buffalo-based 43North accelerator’s 2017 cohort and has since raised several million dollars in equity funding.

Another Halifax company that’s changing the dairy industry is Milk Moovement, which began life in St. John’s in 2018. Co-founders Robert Forsythe and Jon King built the company to make supply chain management software for the dairy industry, and their technology as of July was used by more than 2,500 dairy farms, accounting for about 15 percent of the U.S. market. Milk Moovement’s story has resounded with investors, as it raised US$3.2 million in 2021 and US$20 million in 2022.

When Milk Moovement received a Volta Ecosystem Impact Award recently, another winner was Dartmouth-based Impactful Health R&D President and CEO Mina Mekhail. His company has developed compostable packaging that extends the shelf-life of fish by about 15 to 30 percent. Its Actipack product can reduce fishing industry food waste, which amounts in North America to 2.3 million tonnes per year in North America. Actipack is derived from natural materials that are 100 percent biodegradable, so it can be composted after use.

Another company that aims to increase organic materials in food production is Reazent, a company that came to Halifax when its Founder and CEO Sumit Verma immigrated from India during the pandemic. It was a catch for the region, as Reazent was already in the prestigious IndieBio accelerator in Silicon Valley. The company says it’s on a mission to replace synthetic agrochemicals with more economically viable, sustainable, and safer solutions.

The East Coast ecosystem supporting these companies often extends beyond HRM. Reazent, for example, came to Nova Scotia after being accepted into AscendBio, a program that helps cleantech and life sciences companies develop their products using the fermentation facilities at the Verschuren Centre in Sydney. Other components of the Nova Scotia ecosystem are Perennia, an incubator for food innovation, and Dalhousie University’s agriculture campus, both of which are based in Truro. Gregg Curwin of Novagevity also says Shelley King at Charlottetown-based Natural Products Canada is doing a great job to support the sector.

Curwin himself is a huge champion of the industry, and speaks with authority given his success. Good Leaf, which is now part of the McCain Foods empire, has production facilities in Guelph and Bible Hill and is developing new farms in Calgary and Quebec. And Novagecity is closing a $2.5 million funding round.

“Foodtech and agritech in Halifax and Nova Scotia are interesting,” he said. “Remarkably it gets little attention. The food and ag space is probably the most needed category (of innovation) given concerns about food security and climate change, and it’s probably an area that’s attracting more capital velocity that any other. The world is realizing that something that needs to be done about how we produce food.”



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