Sunday, July 24, 2016
A Halifax bio-processor and entrepreneur believes that a new Sobey School of Business program is playing a critical role in developing green solutions to ease a farming crisis in western Africa. Tim Cranston was simply looking to hone his innovation and management skills when he signed up for the 16-month master of technology, entrepreneurship and innovation (MTEI) program, but from the inaugural class it was clear that the combination of classmates and course work would drive his existing research into nutrition in a powerful new direction.
After the students first met, one from the Gambia started talking about the impact that drought conditions were having on his family’s sesame-seed farm. “He was so passionate, I immediately thought maybe I could and should do something to help,” says Cranston. As co-founder of marine biotech company Natural Ocean Products, incubated at the National Research Council’s Institute for Marine Bioscience in Halifax, Cranston had spent years studying the bioactive compounds in organic biomass such as sea plants and developing novel ways to efficiently break down plants’ cell walls to extract maximum yields of bioactive compounds such as proteins and antioxidants.
Because seaweed can retain 200 to 300 times its weight in moisture, Cranston concluded that his technology could be used in the Gambia to turn coastal sea plants into a natural soil additive and bio-stimulant that could reduce the impact of drought and the overuse of chemical fertilizers. It started as a class project called Afri-Sea, then Cranston and fellow students Sulayman Cham and Todd Mercer developed a business model and proposal that has been endorsed by the Gambia’s government and is being reviewed by the World Bank.
“We have students coming into the program who have developed their own technology, and they’re looking for ways to mature or commercialize it,” says MTEI director Dawn Jutla. “They come seeking knowledge, support, and connections, and when they find them, magic happens.” She believes that Cranston’s project can put him on the world stage based on its potential technology transfer and humanitarian benefits.
For Cham, a Gambian education student, being on the world stage comes a distant second to providing relief to his fellow citizens. This year he has witnessed how drought has reduced the yield of 10-acre farms to less than two acres’ worth of production. “This project can change the lives of Africans and help a struggling economy recover,” he says. “It’s a big goal, but I hope in six months before I head out for an internship that we will have leveraged the MTEI advantage to the point that there is a working plan in place.”
The project partners have yet to face the financial challenges, but early indications are promising. A panel of successful tech entrepreneurs adjudicating an MTEI competition earlier this fall chose Afri-Sea for top honours. With the World Bank making $730 million in agricultural investments in western Africa annually, Cranston and Jutla are convinced that Afri-Sea can get a piece of that investment.
Cranston views the Gambia project as a test pilot that will lead to technological advances and new opportunities, which will allow him to tackle other challenges such as renewable energy sources and alternative cancer-treatment options. “There’s more to innovation than modelling what you do and how you do it with technology,” he says. “There’s also why you do it. With its diverse classes and great presenters, MTEI teaches all of those aspects.” — Steve Proctor