Perennia Innovation filling need as incubation centre for budding initiatives

Harry Sullivan
Published on March 30, 2014

BIBLE HILL - Paint from natural pigments, tea from blueberry leaves, shoe polish from mink oil and the use of starfish blood to help with human skin regeneration.

“We’re quite excited about this initiative here,” said Richard Ablett, chief science director at the Perennia Innovation Centre in Bible Hill.

“And there will be other projects in Nova Scotia come along,” he said, of future initiatives beyond those already taking place. “What I’m seeing is a lot of young entrepreneurs coming in the door in Nova Scotia that really have nowhere to go to get products developed.”

The Perennia site is an environmentally-friendly, 25,000 square-foot facility that acts as an incubation centre for budding agriculture and marine-based commercial initiatives by providing the space, laboratory and other equipment and assistance. It also offers technical expertise to help entrepreneurs transform their ideas into marketable, higher-value products.

“We’ve got to create higher value from other commodity products,” Ablett said of the need for Nova Scotia to take advantage of export opportunities on the global market. “The solution is to produce more goods and services. This building gets you into that game, hopefully by de-risking and doing it systematically, because most of our clients can’t build or afford these laboratory backups. They can’t make the new products.”

After opening in October 2012, the $9.2 million centre at the former AgriTECH Park is “swamped” with clients working on leading edge products that might otherwise never see the light of day.

Although the centre works closely with the Dalhousie University Agricultural Campus, Perennia differs from general university initiatives in that its clients take products from the research and development stage and “incubates” them into tangible, marketable products.

One case in point is TruLeaf Sustainable Agriculture Ltd., which is involved with producing year-round growth of fresh lettuce, herbs and other leafy greens for regional markets in an effort to reduce the costs and environmental concerns associated with long-distance trucking of vegetables and fruits.

In two years at Perennia, TruLeaf has grown from a business plan to an R&D company that is set to expand into full-scale commercialization.

And that is precisely what Perennia is designed to do, Ablett said - take a business concept, develop it to the point of being marketable and proceed to the next stage.

In addition to serving start-up companies, the centre was also designed to offer space to established companies wanting to expand their current product line or for those needing specific process improvement consultation.

As an example, Ablett referred to another venture at the centre that involves the development of converting blueberry leaves into a tea product to sell in China.

The health benefits of blueberries have been well documented because of their antioxidant content, he said. What isn’t as well known, however, is that the blueberry leaf - which normally becomes no more than field compost - has been determined to also carry potential as an economic value-added product.

“So what do we do in the industry? We let the leaves fall off,” Ablett said. “We’ve been throwing the bi-products into the woods and onto compost piles and not capturing the value.”

But the blueberry leaf, “ironically,” also contains as much antioxidant as the berry, he said.

“And that blueberry one to me is the essence of why this thing went up. Taking a primary resource where the farmer can’t think like this, linking it to a Chinese business lady who says, ‘I know what to do with it.’ She does her thing and bingo, you’ve got a connection.”

Examples of other leading-edge ventures underway at Perennia involve developing a seaweed extract to be used as a polyphenol blocker for slowing down the uptake of sugar across the intestinal tract (something that could be of great benefit to diabetics); developing bio-active products from summer savoury, honey, soy beans and mink oil for health benefits or to replace the need for using petroleum products.

Yet another initiative involves using the blood, or coelomic fluid, from starfish, because of their stem cell regeneration capacity, to help replace lost skin tissue in humans.

The facility was developed with a long-term, 25-year vision in mind, with the intent of filling an existing entrepreneurial vacuum, Ablett said. But because of its very nature, he is the first to admit that not every attempted initiative will be a success.

“Some of these businesses will make it and others won’t and they will turn over and they are supposed to turn over,” he said.

Given the early examples however, Ablett sees no shortage of business concepts and value-added ideas to come through the centre’s doors in the future, as long as the government mindset remains in place to provide the ongoing support it will require down the road.

“I think you are going to see it go hard and fast and grow very quickly and the government needs to get its head around that,” he said. “You cannot say you are not going to be in the value-addition business if you want to be in a future economy.”

Twitter: @tdnharry