Agriculture goes high tech in Okanagan Falls

ProgenyBio bringing a set of high technology techniques out of the laboratory and into the fields and vineyards

With ProgenyBio

With ProgenyBio

If Geoff White’s plans come together, Okanagan Falls may soon be at the crossroads of more than the highways.

White plans to establish his company, ProgenyBio, in Okanagan Falls, and bring a set of high technology techniques out of the laboratory and into the fields and vineyards.

“We’re bridging the high-tech world into agriculture. There is actually a huge gap between research and practical use in production systems,” said White, who holds a degree in plant science.

“This has been something that I have been thinking about for some time, but it seems the time is right to finally implement it,” said White, who moved to OK Falls eight years ago when he began working at the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre in Summerland. “Knowing that there is a high need for industry in OK Falls since the loss of the Weyerhaeuser mill, if we had the opportunity we would love to contribute to this area.”

The location of Okanagan Falls gives White easy access to one of his target markets, grape growers, to the north and south, as well as highway access to his other target market, greenhouse growers.

“Knowing that there is this void here in OK Falls, we thought it would be a great opportunity to just step in and see if we could make this happen here,” said White. “And it looks like it is a go ahead. We’re getting excellent support from the regional district and we are very close to finalizing a site here in OK Falls and if everything goes well, we should be opening in the new year.”

John Powell, the economic development co-ordinator for the area, agrees that it is looking good for ProgenyBio to start up as early as January.

“It’s a real success for Okanagan Falls,” Powell said. “This is the kind of business we want to attract to the community.”

While ProgenyBio will only have about four or five employees to start, the spin off could be substantial.

“I have heard things through the grapevine that greenhouse production could be another avenue for an industry in OK Falls as well,” said White. “Under that context, we could be an excellent support industry to get that up and running.”

White is also one of the top five finishers in the ongoing Jump Start Challenge, and he is also looking to sell investors on the viability of his ideas as that competition also moves itself moves into the real world.

“It’s essentially our first round of real investor pitching. We’ve had the odd panel of investors come in, but this is the first real life one where money is on the line,” said White prior to presentations on Nov. 8 in Kelowna and Nov. 14 in Vancouver.

White admits to not having a lot of experience making business pitches before he began working with tech incubator Accelerate Okanagan and entered the JumpStart Challenge.

“The eight weeks of training we have had has really helped us tune what our pitch and delivery is,” said White. “We’ll see how nervous I am once I am there.”

ProgenyBio has three services aimed at the agricultural sector. The first, White said, will be agricultural consulting services, consulting with growers on agronomic and horticultural practices. But the two other services, plant virus testing and micropropagation plant cultivation, is where White will be taking laboratory skills to practical applications.

Plant viruses, he said, have growing potential as a problem, especially for vineyards. It’s not something you hear about in the general public, but is a concern for growers.

“The biggest issue with plant viruses is that there is no cure. A lot of other diseases, bacterial or fungal, even insect problems, you can spray for a lot of them and then you can manage them. With plant viruses, your only recourse seems to be pulling out the plant and destroying it,” said White. “In the context of the grape growers, there are a significant amount of viruses mounting and spreading throughout the vineyards here in B.C.

These aren’t viruses that have any potential for harming humans, White said, other than in the pocketbook.

“When production goes down, prices go up,” he said. “Because our vineyard industry is relatively young in the scheme of things, they haven’t noticed the effects substantially until recently.”

The methods to do the testing already exist, explains White, it’s just they require a molecular based skill set to implement them. On a research basis, the testing is done frequently, but he will be offering it on a larger scale, as a service for growers.

Likewise, tissue culture micropropagation of plant material is common in the laboratory, but White has plans to scale it up, with eyes on the greenhouse industry.

“It hasn’t been openly used in greenhouse production, because it usually requires a fairly high skill set to establish these labs,” said White. The process could be used, he said for a grower who wanted to duplicate a line of, say, tomatoes, that were strong producers with good fruit but an unstable seed line.

“With this method of micropropagation, we just take cuttings of that perfect plant  and then just multiply that out for them,” said White. “So what they start with then, is a uniform advanced, hardier, disease-free starting material.”

Micropropagation differs from standard methods of growing plants from cuttings in the volume it can produce and speed, explained White.

“Our target market is greenhouse production. If you are talking about getting up to scale, a lot of these growers are looking at orders of tens of thousands of plants at one time,” said White. “We can bring them up to scale at a much faster rate and it can be done to crops that don’t normally have this attribute.”