Sourdough bread. Yogurt. Kombucha. Cheese. If you’ve had any of these products (or watched Dr. Oz), you’re already familiar with the idea that naturally occurring bacteria can offer benefits, whether to taste or to health.
As one Alberta biotechnology company is showing, there are more benefits to bacteria than a healthy gut. Raymond-based AdvancedAg Inc. puts microorganisms to work to clean lakes and waterways and enhance health and productivity of soil and plants. In the process, they’re putting a family business at the forefront of a growing subsector of biological agricultural products.
IT STARTED WITH THE GERM OF AN IDEA.
Dr. Phyllis Day Chief was a long-time writing instructor at Lethbridge College, with a background in education and a thriving side business as a technical writer.
“I had all kinds of contracts with outside companies, including with one called Natural Golf Solutions, which hired me to do a brochure,” recalls Day Chief. “I did some research and found out that they had this environmentally friendly product that could clean up bodies of water, which I saw as a huge opportunity.” With no one else selling the product in Canada, Day Chief decided to explore starting her own bacteria business. However, before taking the plunge, she had to answer the question: does this stuff actually work? For answers, she looked in her own backyard to Lethbridge College’s Aquaculture Centre of Excellence (ACE) and researcher John Derksen.
“What Phyllis was offering was bacteria that was active and ready to go, and the concentrations she could achieve were huge,” says Derksen. “I told her it was better than any other products I saw out there at the time and it's an environmental friendly way to go since these [bacteria] are naturally occurring anyway.”
With the science side covered, Day Chief also consulted with Cal Koskowich, Industrial Technology Advisor with the National Research Council Canada who has long had an office at Lethbridge College, for help navigating the complexities of small business start-ups. They worked through everything from government approvals to regulations and research grants to get her company – dubbed Advanced Water Technologies – off the ground.
“In the early days, it’s figuring out things like: how do I start a company? How do I perform our finances? How do I forecast budgets?” says Koskowich. “That's where a lot of companies might chicken out, and it’s a credit to Phyllis that she dove right in without hesitation.”
Almost 20 years later, Advanced Water Technologies is a division of AdvancedAg Inc. and is an industry leader in natural water treatment solutions. Its clients range from municipalities to golf courses to the Calgary Zoo. They even worked with the City of Lethbridge on a three-year project to clean up foul-smelling sludge in Henderson Lake.