PORTAGE LA PRARIE, MANITOBA – Innovation is the engine that is moving Portage La Prairie-based Canadian Prairie Garden (CPG) into new markets. The newly established agri-business is well on its way to providing top quality vegetable, berry and legume puree products to the food industry in Canada and around the world.
What sets CPG apart? The fully automated, totally enclosed cooking system, referred to as Innovative Steam Infusion Cooking Technology is in a class all it’s own.
“When we showed the products and the technology to some of the largest food manufacturers, they said it was a game changer,” said Kelly Beaulieu, CPG founder and COO. “There’s nothing else like it in the industry.”
The system uses ultra-high temperature direct steam injection and cooks the products at super high speeds. The result is improved product quality, fresher appearance and flavour and enhanced nutrient retention. Aseptic packaging ranging in size from bags to industrial drums and totes for ambient storage and transportation are another key selling feature for the food manufacturing industry.
“It’s difficult to go to market with just a tweak on what’s out there already,” said Beaulieu. “I knew the only way to open eyes was to be very different and very advanced. Our processing and packaging technology allows the product to be sold way past a normal shelf life, but still retain all the fresh flavor.”
Beaulieu has put a 10-year exclusive license on the technology. This, she adds, will allow her to build her brand while keeping competition at bay.
“I don’t want competition,” said Beaulieu. “If someone wants to license the technology from me, they can be part of my company.”
Personal concerns fuel drive to address market’s pain
The concept for the puree business was prompted by Beaulieu’s concern for the challenges faced by growers in Manitoba’s Central Plains and Pembina Valley.
“All of the crops are ready at the same time which creates a glut on the market,” said Beaulieu, referring to the short shelf life of fresh produce.
Beaulieu also spotted an opportunity in the produce that gets abandoned in fields because it isn’t suitable for retail purposes. With her indigenous background and teachings, she took particular exception to this practice.
“These products were perfectly edible but might not possess the aesthetics needed to hit retailers’ shelves,” said Beaulieu, referring to examples such as crooked carrots or overgrown cauliflower. “I was always taught not to waste the gifts of the Mother (earth), but to be grateful for them.”
Puree, which is ground up fruits and vegetables, provided the answer Beaulieu was looking for. “Puree is very versatile and can be cooked and packaged in a way that keeps it stable at room temperature for up to two years.”
Once Beaulieu knew what she wanted to produce, she researched the process for creating a product that would be different and superior to others on the market as well as environmentally friendly.
“We had looked at different technologies to do puree processing and chose a technology that was unique and had never been used this way before.” Because she was using a new technology, Beaulieu soon realized she would need to do a full proof of concept before she could go to investors.
This included piloting production in a small processing plan in Portage La Prairie and acquiring letters of intent from interested buyers.
“Most businesses don’t need $10 million just to get started,” Beaulieu said. The proof of concept gave her the ability to move forward in acquiring phase two investment in a large-scale plant that opened in Portage this past April.
Becoming investor-ready with some help from Innovate Manitoba
Beaulieu credits Innovate Manitoba for giving her some major help in raising capital. She attended the Launch’Pad Bootcamp and placed third in Venture’Challenge on two occasions – once for CPG and another time for PB&C Agri-Tech Solutions, a company that is still in the early funding stages.
As part of the Venture’Challenge prize package, Beaulieu had the opportunity to pitch her idea to investors at the Banff Venture Forum.
“We met with interested investors at that time but I didn’t take them because they wanted equity,” chuckled Beaulieu. “I took quite a licking.”
While the majority of startups have to give up equity to attract quality investors, Beaulieu had a hunch that she could procure funding from various other sources that would allow her to retain control.
“I accessed every grant and funding opportunity I could find,” Beaulieu said. “Every time I ran into an objection from a potential investor or funding agency, I’d get my facts together and take another run at it. I always asked questions, so I could do better the next time.”
“I had to do incredible due diligence and this is where Innovate Manitoba really helped. Because of what I’d learned, I made sure that every time I talked to an investor, instead of waiting for them to ask the questions, I already had the questions addressed in my presentation.”
She emphasizes the importance of choosing investors as well as business partners strategically.
“In my case the investors were often putting their money on me,” said Beaulieu, referring specifically to former Prime Minister Paul Martin, founder of the Capital for Aboriginal and Prosperity Entrepreneurship Fund (CAPE). “He said ‘aboriginal entrepreneurs don’t get these chances and I’m going to give you that chance.’”
In addition to CAPE, Beaulieu raised startup capital from organizations such as First People’s Economic Growth Fund and the Agriculture Innovation Program. CPG also benefited from funding arrangements with the Scientific Research and Experimental Development Tax Incentive Program (SR&ED), the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program, Aboriginal Business Canada, Manitoba Agri-Innovation Suite, Prairie Improvement Network (formerly Manitoba Rural Adaptation Council), and the Women’s Enterprise Centre of Manitoba.
Taking the path less chosen
Beaulieu is confident that CPG will achieve projected gross annual sales of $6 to $10 million by April 2015 and this number could be much higher with increased production and equipment.
“We definitely have a great foothold already and much more is in the pipeline.”
What’s been the most difficult? Beaulieu says it was feeling alone. “At times I felt like everyone was saying no and that no one understood what I was trying to do. I had to keep my courage up and draw on the tremendous support of my business partners.”
She believes that you have to look for different opportunities and to not just follow the path that everybody else has taken.
“Many times, I had to say to myself ‘that path has already been run on.’ I wanted a new path. I wanted to be innovative. And I wanted what I built to be important because it was the first of its kind.”