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NGen commits funding to new $72 million production facility that involves Canadian tech startups

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Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen), Canada’s Advanced Manufacturing Supercluster, has committed to invest $16.8 million into a new protein production facility in Ontario aimed to address global food insecurity.

The project, which has a total commitment of $72.7 million, will bring together tech startups and other private businesses to employ various technologies that support non-meat protein production that is safe for the environment.
 

Several startups are bringing their technologies to this project, including Aspire Food Group, which is leading the project, as well as IoT startup Swift Labs and Darwin AI, both of which are based in Kitchener-Waterloo. Other partners on the project include Telus Agriculture and A&L Canada Laboratories.

The project partners will use industrial automation and robotics, IoT, analytics, and deep learning, to farm crickets that have a similar protein quality to meat and an environmental footprint similar to plants. These crickets are processed into sustainable, superfood ingredients that Aspire claims are nutritionally on par with or superior to livestock, cell-cultured, and plant-based alternatives.

Aspire Food Group has begun construction of the cricket production and demonstration facility in London, Ontario. The startup, founded in Montreal in 2013, produces ethical, automated food-grade protein production systems, targeting markets that use crickets and their byproducts in human and pet nutrition, biomedicine, and agrochemicals.

“The facility will establish Canada as a leader in the rapidly growing insect and protein industries,” said Mohammed Ashour, CEO and co-founder of Aspire Food Group. “The technologies and products developed by TELUS Agriculture, Swift Labs, DarwinAI, and A&L Laboratories will accelerate technology adoption in the manufacturing and agricultural industries and grow an inclusive and digitally skilled workforce.”

NGen claims this is the largest project funded by the organization to date under the federal government’s Innovation Supercluster Initiative. The Innovation Superclusters Initiative was launched in 2018 with $950 million in funding over five years to promote large-scale collaboration among industry leaders, small to medium-sized businesses, and post-secondary institutions and develop and scale high-potential technologies in Canada.

Last month, BetaKit reported that NGen had committed almost two-thirds of its $230 million budget. NGen is one of three Superclusters lobbying the federal government for additional funding to support its efforts beyond the program’s initial five-year timeline. The other Superclusters part of these lobbying efforts include the Digital Technology Supercluster and the Prairies-based Proteins Supercluster.

“At $16.8 million in Supercluster funding, this project represents a high mark for NGen,” said Jayson Myers, CEO of NGen. “This is a truly innovative and ground-breaking project and supports the objectives of NGen: developing transformative and applied world-class advanced manufacturing solutions while creating mutually beneficial partnerships that will have a positive impact on Canadians and the economy.”

Ashour told BetaKit the $72.7 million for the project is fully committed, and noted that Aspire is looking to expand the project’s scope, which may involve raising capital in the next few months.

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A big test of reusable packaging for groceries comes to Canada

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An online store has launched in Ontario selling groceries and household items from Loblaws in containers it will take back and refill — a test of whether Canadian consumers are ready to change their habits. Industry-watchers say it is breaking ground for reusable packaging.

The store, called Loop, launched in Canada on Feb. 1, in partnership with supermarket giant Loblaws, and offers items like milk, oats, ice cream and toothpaste for delivery in most of Ontario. Loop is already operating in the continental U.S., the U.K and France. 

Included so far are some products from well-known brands such as PC sauces and oils, Häagen-Dazs ice cream, Heinz ketchup, Chipits chocolate chips and Ocean Spray cranberries. 

“The goal is really validating that this is something the Canadian public is interested in,” said Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of Loop and its parent company TerraCycle.

Unlike existing small no-waste retailers, they want to offer “your favourite product at your favourite retailer in a reusable and convenient manner.”

The involvement of a huge retailer makes the launch notable in terms of scale and who it will reach, said Tima Bansal, Canada Research Chair in business sustainability at Western University in London, Ont. 

“I think it’s at the scale that’s needed to create the change in the community in Canada more generally,” she said.

How it works for customers

Szaky likens Loop to the reusable bottle system for beer in Canada “but expanding it to any product that wants to play in the [North American] ecosystem.”

The ultimate goal, he said, is to give people a greener way to consume that limits the amount of mining and farming needed to produce packaging.

“This allows us to greatly reduce the need to extract new materials, which is the biggest drain on our environment.

Loopstore.ca currently lists just 98 products, although many are sold out or “coming soon.” 

As with other online grocery stores, customers fill their virtual shopping cart, but in addition to the cost of the item itself, they pay a deposit for its container. That can range from 50 cents for glass President’s Choice salsa jars like the ones that are normally at the supermarket to $5 for a stainless steel Häagen-Dazs ice cream tub. 

The items are delivered to a customer’s home by courier FedEx for a $25 fee, although the fee is waived for orders over $50.

Once you’ve spooned out all the salsa or ice cream or squeezed out all the toothpaste, the container doesn’t go in the recycling bin. Instead, you toss them into the tote bag they came in — even if they’re dented or damaged — and they get picked up.

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This wearable device beeps when workers get too close to each other

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It’s a device that emits a high-pitched beep, buzzes and lights up if your coworker steps too close.

While some introverts would have bought this device before the pandemic to stave off chatty colleagues near the coffee machine, ZeroKey designed the product with a more important purpose — helping employees physically distance to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus. 

The Calgary tech company’s “Safe Space” device looks like a small plastic badge that can be worn on a wrist or clipped to a shirt pocket or belt. 

“Our products, in a nutshell, localize or figure out where things are in 3D space and our big claim to fame is we do it very precisely, more precisely than anyone else in the world,” said Matt Lowe, co-founder and CEO of ZeroKey.

The company says its location-tracking technology passively monitors the distance between each device and is accurate down to 1.5 millimetres. The distance on devices can be set — so if, say, science determines three metres apart is actually safer that two, that can be tweaked. 

Lowe says the company came from humble beginnings — he and a co-founder, working out of a room in his house. The company has grown from two to 30 employees and has more openings it’s looking to fill.

Inspired by sci-fi

Their inspiration comes, as so many technological innovations have, from sci-fi. 

Lowe recalls watching Minority Report, and being transfixed with the gesture-based user interface Tom Cruise’s character operates. 

“Wouldn’t it be awesome if we had an interface that was more in tune with how humans operate naturally with their hands. So if you could just walk up to a new piece of technology … and just immediately be proficient,” he said. 

But applying that tech to the COVID-19 era wasn’t something the company had anticipated.

Lowe said some of the company’s clients in the manufacturing industry approached ZeroKey with a request.

“They came to us and said, ‘hey … we have the data where people are, can you build some sort of system so that we can do contact tracing and we can let people know if they’re closer than two metres?’ And we said, ‘absolutely … that’s easier than what we normally do,'” he said.

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Blistering rallies spur Canadian tech world to repeat equity sales

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Canadian technology companies have been making multiple trips to the equity market over the past year, capitalizing on a rally in tech shares that’s helping them raise cash at ever higher valuations.

Dye & Durham Ltd., which makes software used by law firms, took advantage of a more than sixfold rally in its shares since its July IPO to raise $500 million (US$394 million) in a bought deal of stock and convertible debentures, the company said Tuesday. Dye & Durham, which went public at $7.50 a share, received $50.50 per share in the private placement. Peers including Lightspeed POS Inc. and Docebo Inc. have made similar moves.

Shares of technology companies have gained since the onset of the pandemic as their corporate customers increasingly turned to cloud-based applications to support their remote workforces, said Anurag Rana, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. The technology sector was one of the few places investors could look for growth during the crisis, with huge swaths of the economy including retailers, restaurants, airlines, hotels and casinos hammered by lockdowns, he said.

“Issuers and private-equity investors are not stupid, and they know somewhere down the road that valuations may come back,” Rana said. “So this is the time when they sell.”

Canada’s S&P/TSX Information Technology Index has risen 82 per cent in the past year, fuelled by rallies in Lightspeed and Shopify Inc. That compares with a 36 per cent advance for the U.S. S&P 500 Information Technology Index.

Those gains are giving early investors in tech companies an opportunity to take some profits. In conjunction with Dye & Durham’s private deal announced Tuesday, some investors agreed with the underwriters to sell 1.98 million shares at the $50.50 price as well.

Lightspeed, which provides cloud-based point-of-sale systems for retailers and restaurants, has also seized the moment. The company went public in Canada in February 2019 and last year followed that up with a U.S. IPO, selling shares for US$30.50 apiece. The deal raised US$332.3 million for the company and US$65.4 million for some shareholders.

After Lightspeed’s share price more than doubled, it went back to the market again last week with a public offering of shares for US$70 each, raising US$620.2 million for the company and US$56 million for other shareholders.

Docebo, which sells cloud-based learning software, has tapped the market multiple times over the past year. The firm, which went public in Canada in October 2019, completed a bought deal of shares atC$50 apiece in August. The move raised $25 million for the company and $50 million for investors including founder and Chief Executive Officer Claudio Erba, Chief Revenue Officer Alessio Artuffo and top outside investor Intercap Equity Inc.

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