INVENTIVENESS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF GUELPH
IN THE EARLY 1900’s, Charles Zavitz, Ontario Agricultural College professor and father of the first widely successful Canadian soybean variety, believed that it was the researcher’s responsibility to make sure useful knowledge or technology found its way into the public’s hands to improve life and better society.
Fast-forward to the present, and it’s that same philosophy – along with a few other key ingredients – that have helped carve out the University of Guelph’s place as an innovative, driving force in Canadian agriculture.
In a new, recently released study by the Impact Group (an independent consulting firm), Guelph was named as the most inventive university in Canada. The study found that Guelph had the most discoveries with commercial potential per faculty member while also spending just a quarter of what the average Canadian university spends in funding per discovery.
A large portion of Guelph’s research discoveries stem from its plant breeding program. In the last five years alone, the university has averaged around 200 new germplasm discoveries per year.
Professor Peter Pauls, Chair of the Department of Plant Agriculture, says that the university’s close work with producers and grower organizations contributes to Guelph’s success, as they regularly fund new and ongoing plant breeding programs.
“The thing is, we’re not living in a bubble and we’re talking to producers on a regular basis to find out about emerging issues and establish a range of targets for each breeding program,” explains Pauls.
For each commodity crop variety produced at Guelph, the first priority is yield. While this may seem simplistic to some, Pauls is keen to emphasize that productivity needs to be the starting point.
From there, creating new varieties depends on drawing from their germplasm bank to create new crosses and incorporate characteristics, such as disease resistance, drought tolerance, or, as with the OAC Prudence soybean, higher protein content.
“We don’t all of a sudden say, ‘let’s start from scratch’,” notes Pauls. “We have material that is the base for varieties that we’re going to be looking at five years from now.”
The widely successful OAC Kent soybean is one example of this. Since its launch, OAC Kent has become one of the most popular, highest-yielding non-genetically modified full season soybean varieties in Ontario. It’s also created an estimated $2 billion market for growers.
Yet, getting OAC Kent from the laboratory to the field was a nearly twenty-year process of small but steady improvements with each new cross. Now, work is already underway to create a variety that could eventually replace OAC Kent in the next decade.
“Every year the bar moves – every year the varieties that we approve have to be as good or better than the existing varieties in Ontario,” Pauls explains. “Even if that improvement is just one per cent better, over a 10 year period, it makes a big difference.”
Another major factor in Guelph’s research success over the decades has been its ability to build powerful, collaborative relationships with government and industry. These partnerships allow the university to stay ahead of the curve and ensure that its innovations have the greatest and widest possible impact among both growers and industry.
For instance, Guelph researchers and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) personnel have worked together over several decades on a wide range of projects that tackle emerging issues, from management strategies for droughts or pesticide resistance, to creating soybean and wheat varieties tailored to foreign export markets in Europe and Japan.
Richard Moccia, Associate Vice-President of Agri-food and Partnerships, says OMAFRA’s investment in Guelph research has had far-reaching impacts. “OMAFRA’s investment in research and service has yielded impressive returns across the agri-food sector – innovation at its finest,” he says. “This is research that’s impacting and improving the lives of Canadians and the world at large.”
Department of Plant Agriculture Professor Steve Bowley says the partnership with OMAFRA sets out a clear research focus for each project.
“We’ve been able to take the expertise at Guelph and the resources that OMAFRA has lent us and put it towards a long-term vision and approach that’s allowed us to grow research out into something that’s created new opportunities and had a large impact,” he says.
Guelph has created avenues for marketing and licensing new technologies to the agricultural industry, including seed companies.
In many cases, each plant breeding program at the university works directly with industry and grower groups to develop new varieties that meet a certain demand. This way, these new varieties are readily adopted by industry for further development and testing and then introduced to farmer’s fields efficiently.
“I think that really close work with producers and their organizations contributes to Guelph’s success,” explains Pauls. “Breeding programs are long term efforts and you need feedback from the farming community to say, ‘okay, this is great, but if it only had that, it would be better.’”
Guelph researchers are constantly listening to producer feedback- perhaps now more than ever. Through the Knowledge Translation and Transfer (KTT) program, they’re continually seeking out the best methods to ensure that scientific knowledge or new discoveries aren’t getting lost in translation or sitting on a shelf somewhere.
Bronwynne Wilton, Knowledge Mobilization Manager for the program, says KTT is a crucial part of the entire research and innovation cycle – from the conversations between growers and researchers that spark new ideas – to developing a useful end product. “It’s not just, ‘I just did a great research project, here’s my paper’,” she says. “When you’re talking about publically funded research, you want it to be as applicable and useful as possible.”
Researchers have been exploring several different avenues for getting their information across – creating interactive websites, seminars and even smart phone apps that package knowledge in more practical ways.
What this knowledge extension all translates to are stronger relationships that help to ensure new findings, innovations and technologies are adopted by the local industry – and ultimately contribute to growing market opportunities both province-wide and internationally.
The Catalyst Centre, Guelph’s own business development office, matches the university’s researchers and their innovations with commercial partners. Erin Skimson, Director of the Catalyst Centre, says research and innovation is far from a straight path. Just because there’s a new discovery, doesn’t mean it’s going to become a commercialized product. Plenty of hurdles stand in the way before a new seed can ever be considered a success or grown in the field.
“The path to commercialization is long, expensive and uncertain. There’s no formula for inventiveness – it’s not an A plus B equals C equation,” Skimson says. “At the same time, Guelph researchers use their expertise and creativity to identify early research that stands a chance of making a positive economic, social or environmental contribution.”
Despite the high level of uncertainty that comes with any new discovery or invention, Pauls says that industry partners are more than willing, time and time again, to make long-term investments in new research. “The industry has confidence that we can produce varieties that make a difference. There’s a pull there, and it’s based on the reputation that we can deliver.”
He adds that this long-term support is crucial – especially towards breeding the next highly successful variety and improving on past success. “That’s part of building that reputation,” says Pauls. “We are always working to find material and breed traits that are even better than the year before.” •