Cultivating Talent for Ag-tech Innovation
  • 19 April 2018

Cultivating Talent for Ag-tech Innovation

A career in agri-technology was not on Kristen Celotto’s radar when she graduated from the University of Waterloo with a Bachelor of Mathematics degree in 2015.

That changed when she applied to the Bioenterprise New Graduate Employment & Mentorship Program in the fall of 2017 and was matched with a position as a junior computer programmer at Guelph-based Farm Health Monitor.

Celotto is now listed as one of the inventors on a patent filed for a sensor-based, real- time tracking system called Transport Genie, which monitors microclimate conditions inside transportation trailers to ensure that livestock arrive at their destination healthy and safe. Transport Genie is the latest start-up for Farm Health Monitor founder and serial entrepreneur Joel Sotomayor, who has hired Celotto full-time and is sending her back to school for data science at the University of Toronto.

The Bioenterprise New Graduate Employment & Mentorship Program has helped 13 Ontario agritech companies like Farm Health Monitor recruit and train the highly qualified personnel they need to grow and succeed. At the same time, it has introduced university and college graduates to the career potential in the rapidly growing sector, which faces a shortage of highly-skilled technical and professional workers.

“It’s an amazing program,” Celotto said. “It’s really beneficial for smaller companies to help them expand and for young graduates to help get their foot in the door. It really helped getting started in the field."

The Bioenterprise program addressed a “real pain point” for SMEs, Sotomayor said, explaining that the support went beyond providing funding and vetting candidates to providing onboarding mentorship that included “constant touchpoints” and exposure to the agricultural industry and agtech sector, including on-farm experiences.

“When bringing a new employee on board there’s an incredible amount of training, change management and development,” confirms Jamie Draves, President and CEO of Katan Kitchens, which also participated in the program. “It’s quite expensive, not just from a funding perspective, but from a time and resource perspective."

Draves needed someone to provide marketing and sales support as Katan Kitchens opens new markets for its high-protein, Canadian-grown variety of quinoa, marketed under the Quinta Quinoa brand.

Bioenterprise matched Katan Kitchens with Sophia Lustgarten, who earned a Bachelor of Public Relations from Conestoga College in 2017 and is now the company’s full-time media coordinator, responsible for branding, digital marketing strategies, social media management, media relations and sales expansion.

The hands-on advice and support from the Bioenterprise team, including marketing staff, proved an “invaluable” resource, Lustgarten said.

“I was looking for something that would make me grow. Bioenterprise made it happen. There are opportunities in agriculture right now - it’s one of the industries calling for more growth. It’s been great."

The program drew interest from across Ontario and beyond, luring Juyeong (Jude) Hong from Manitoba to what he calls “Canada’s Silicon Valley” in Ontario. Today he is applying his Bachelor of Science degree in agribusiness as the new Business Development Coordinator for AgriBrink, which makes an on-the-go tire pressure control system to reduce soil compaction from heavy farm machinery.

Like Draves, Hong cites the support of the Bioenterprise team for the “guidance and coaching” necessary for a smooth transition to the new role.

The New Graduate Employment & Mentorship Program formalized the kind of support Bioenterprise has long provided to new grads, and also incorporated the wealth of experience the organization has acquired hiring and training staff for its own team, said Jessica Bowes, Manager of Bioenterprise’s Business & Technology Analyst Group.

It also extended Bioenterprise services for early-stage businesses, “contributing to the development of new talent with positive outcomes on employment opportunities and job creation."

All graduates accepted full-time job offers at the program’s conclusion at the end of February, either with the company they were matched with or with another firm.

Bowes will be presenting the results of the Bioenterprise New Graduate Employment & Mentorship Program at the Agricultural Institute of Canada’s 2018 Conference, April 23-24 in Guelph. The conference will focus on new ways the Canadian agricultural innovation system can address highly-skilled technical and professional shortages and support the future generation of researchers and innovators.

Canada’s agricultural system employs one in eight Canadians, and requires knowledgeable and innovative leaders to address a host of future national and global challenges, from climate change and food security to soil degradation and declining biodiversity.

“These new grads will be the innovators or the managers working with innovations someday,” Bowes notes. “This program really highlighted the opportunities that can be present for early-stage companies and new grads to work together, with support from an organization like Bioenterprise, to ensure companies have the opportunity to retain that talent.


Backgrounder

The Bioenterprise New Graduate Employment & Mentorship Program connected Ontario-based companies with new graduates to develop Highly Qualified Personnel to support and enable innovation in Ontario’s agri-technology sector.

Bioenterprise facilitated introductions, conducted interviews, developed a learning plan, and provided financial compensation until the end of February 2018.

The companies involved in the program were:

The Program was funded by the Growing Forward 2, (GF2), a federal-provincial-territorial initiative.