The global demand for better control and more specialized food production means more technology and science are being brought to bear on the growth of plants.
That means a whole new area of market demand for the Winnipeg company, Controlled Environments Ltd. (Conviron).
The company whose plant-growth chambers have been used by university researchers around the world for the last five decades is now being deployed by agri-food and agricultural biotech companies to isolate traits and characteristics in efforts to produce higher-quality, specialized crops.
As Conviron enters its 50th year in business, its niche in the research and academic market is now broadening into the larger private-sector commercial space.
"Really, what we have seen as the challenges of feeding the planet becomes greater and greater and the attention and focus on it becomes greater and greater, the need for our equipment has increased," said Steve Kroft, the CEO and owner of Conviron.
The 200-person firm — which recently made its first acquisition, a B.C. company that makes advanced automated-control systems for greenhouses and other horticultural applications — is now hitting a significant growth phase.
Whereas a few years ago a $500,000 contract would have been a big deal for the company, it’s now managing multiple projects worth $2 million to $6 million at the same time.
"We have a lot of moving parts, with project management, quality control, logistic and supplier relationships," Kroft said. "We are a small company with international, big-company issues."
Its production is now almost entirely custom-designed. Large-scale, multi-tiered installations are not uncommon, with chambers controlling the basics such as temperature and humidity and featuring all sorts of specialized lighting, different air-quality and air-movement features and specialized chambers that create a range of dew environments.
Michael Dixon, a professor at the Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility at Guelph University, has been working with Conviron equipment for about 30 years.
He said that for the last two decades, the technical capability for highly contained environmental controls or artificial environments for plant production had been the province of academic research, not the commercial food-production sector.
"That is changing now," said Dixon.
The kind of advanced technology Conviron now integrates into its chambers to produce very highly controlled environments are a boon to industry.
"The margins that you can realize on very specialized commodities like nutraceuticals and phytopharmaceuticals (pharmaceuticals that use compounds derived from botanicals instead of chemicals) means the marketplace has opened up."
Companies such as Monsanto, Dupont, Dow, Bayer and Syngenta that might once have concentrated on the development of fertilizer or pesticides are now focusing more attention on developing seeds and growing plants.
"Suddenly the marketplace is taking off," Dixon said. "We are at the early stage of that, but Conviron leads the world."
And Dixon says Conviron also provides the reliability of being seasoned veterans who have been at it for 50 years.
Kroft said the company has always had competitors in the field, but the unique combination of being a very specialized high-tech, niche product in a truly global marketplace has made for significant barriers to entry.
Now generating about $50 million in annual sales (according to previous reports), the company is getting larger. And while there is significant new commercial interest in Conviron’s technology, Dixon, whose work focuses on plant growth in space, said that may very well be its next frontier.