Sowing seeds of success: how Northern Nutrients transformed from agricultural distributor to innovator
- Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Grown on Canadian farms and consumed worldwide, canola is at the centre of a thriving industry for our country. But for the crop to grow in a healthy way, canola requires sulphur-based fertilization. That's where the need for specialized fertilizer manufacturing companies like Northern Nutrients comes in.
Headquartered in Saskatoon, Northern Nutrients brings proprietary in-house-developed seed treatment and fertilizer solutions to the agriculture market across Canada, the US, Europe and beyond, helping farmers overcome a wide range of crop nutrition challenges. Specializing in soil and plant health, water and nutrient management, and grain logistics, the company is sowing seeds of success as its products increase yields and improve farmer profitability.
Founded in 2016 in the Netherlands, Northern Nutrients established its Canadian business 2 years later in Canada. The once one-person-company has since scaled its manufacturing operation into a small, agile team that produces innovative biological-control products that are sustainable, safe and environmentally friendly—effectively competing against entrenched multinationals for domestic and international market share.
With advisory services and research and development funding from the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP), Northern Nutrients has truly become a growing success in the agricultural market.
In its early years, Northern Nutrients was a fertilizer and ag-tech distribution and marketing company with a mission to bring low-salt and biologically friendly fertilizer products from all over the world to farmers. However, the business quickly realized that they were limited in terms of the impact they could make on the marketplace. To truly achieve the company's mission, they would need to learn how to manufacture their own products in-house and develop their own technology.
Northern Nutrients' first contact with the National Research Council of Canada was through its Aquatic and Crop Resource Development Research Centre. Using the Centre's lab in Montréal, the company conducted preliminary research and testing on seed treatment processes and unknown biochemistries.
"This was our first foray into doing any type of R&D on our own, taking this unknown raw material we thought could be used as a biological fungus to help plants," says Ross Guenther, Founder and CEO of Northern Nutrients. "This helped us dip our toes into the water in terms of doing the research ourselves, and drove us to realize we wanted to make our own tech, which would eventually let us control the products we were marketing."
Partnering with the NRC's Aquatic and Crop Resource Development Research Centre, as well as partnering for a joint product development with the NRC's Energy, Mining and Environment Research Centre, served as the bridge that ultimately led Northern Nutrients to NRC IRAP in 2018.
Enabling a new mindset
According to Ross, NRC IRAP's greatest impact on the company was in helping them solidify their change of business direction.
"NRC IRAP made us believe that a small company could actually have an R&D department, and that completely changed our mindset and philosophy on how we do things—kickstarting our transformation from a marketing company to an innovation company."
When Northern Nutrients first approached NRC IRAP in 2018, the program provided funding to hire their first R&D manager. As well, NRC IRAP funded a research and development project, enabling the company to develop a proprietary formulation to stimulate plant growth and control mold for farmers by combining specialty fertilizers and seed treatments.
With further funding, the company was also able to develop a mobile fertilizer-coating machine for driving around farmers' fields, and hire a contractor to conduct market research on farmers' needs and competitors to help Northern Nutrients better position itself in the industry.
Making the right connections for success
Since 2018, NRC IRAP has provided numerous advisory services to help Northern Nutrients build its internal research capacity and grow its physical business footprint.
Early on in the relationship, Colleen Christensen, the NRC IRAP industrial technology advisor (ITA) working with Northern Nutrients, provided recommendations of areas with appropriate zoning for the company's headquarters and small manufacturing facilities.
To help Northern Nutrients further evolve their own research, Colleen also connected the company with multiple local and international researchers and industry experts—including soil science and plant pathology academics at the University of Saskatchewan. She also introduced Ross to the agri-food portfolio manager at the Canadian Embassy in Den Hague, Netherlands—who in turn helped facilitate connections for Northern Nutrients with other agri-business professionals in Europe. In addition, NRC IRAP facilitated a connection between the company and the Prairie Agriculture Machine Institute (PAMI), enabling Northern Nutrients to test fertilizer formulations and refine the product before taking it to market.
Colleen also connected the company to the new Saskatchewan fertilizer manufacturing tax credit program and nominated Northern Nutrients to the Government of Canada's Accelerated Growth Service (AGS), enabling the company to access support from multiple federal departments simultaneously. That support included developing a Business Scale-Up proposal with Western Economic Diversification (now called PrairiesCan), focusing their export strategy with support from Global Affairs Canada, and coming to an agreement with Farm Credit Canada (FCC) for financing.
"Networking is so important when you're introducing new products to the marketplace. Having someone working by your side like Colleen—someone who is so well-connected with the industry—has been incredibly beneficial for our company,"
Today, that FCC financing is going towards building a large-scale, multi-million-dollar fertilizer manufacturing facility outside of Saskatoon. The facility is expected to be completed in early 2022 and will produce products that Northern Nutrients has already solidified in the market, as well as develop new fertilizers to tackle other agricultural challenges that farmers face.
"Financial project support is critical for companies as they are developing new products, but being able to help a company make the right connections in the financial and innovation ecosystem is essential for sustained growth and benefits to Canada," says Colleen. "Ross has been imaginative as well as extremely capable in developing novel products and scaling up his business. It is gratifying to see him launch this facility and compete on a strong foundation of technical innovation."
In just a few short years, Northern Nutrients has experienced not only a significant transformation, but also massive growth.
"When we started, we were a one-man show of a company doing a couple hundred-thousand dollars in marketing other people's products—and now we're a $6M company of about 12 people, building an almost $20M factory that will stimulate innovation as well as jobs for Western Canada and North America," says Ross. "It all started with NRC IRAP moving our mindset to believe we could be an innovative production company producing our own technologies. We owe a lot to NRC IRAP because of that."