Since the beginning of civilization, crop abundance has single-handedly determined the fate of a population. The first agricultural revolution began in 8500 BC, near the Ancient East. Different societies and governing systems have formed around agricultural innovation, while cultures and food customs have emerged depending on each region’s unique crop profile and cultivation methods. Knowledge of how to domesticate and scale the production of crops has made massive populations possible. Since then, agritechnology has constantly been evolving, presenting fascinating opportunities to tackle food shortage problems in different parts of the world. One of which is known as plant tissue culture. Plant tissue culture refers to techniques used to maintain or grow plant cells, tissues, or organs under sterile conditions using a nutrient culture.
It is widely used to propagate plants with desirable traits in a way that’s faster than the average growth cycle. This is particularly useful to safeguard native plant species, quickly populate plants required for land restoration, or increase food supply in barren regions. As a former banker, now turned agritech entrepreneur, Joshua Callahan’s life changed when he moved north to the Yukon, a mountainous northern territory in Canada bordered by glacier-fed alpine lakes. The effects of the pandemic transcended into barren grocery shelves and bubbling food insecurity. As both an inhabitant and observer, Joshua tells a startup tale containing themes of resilience, community, and optimism.
Interviewer: Tell us a little bit about living in the Yukon.
Joshua: The Yukon is a tough place for food in general. We import around 99% of our food, and we’re on that south-to-north supply chain where things are coming up from Mexico, California, and Washington. Sometimes we get some BC apples if we’re lucky. Climate change has had a lot of impact on that supply chain, especially with droughts, fires, and storms. It puts a lot of communities in peculiar positions regarding how they access food.
Regarding the way of life, the First Nations residing here have done a great job of keeping their cultures alive. Especially as we’re seeing more reconciliation efforts come forward, there’s been a real revitalization of First Nation culture. A lot of hunting goes on, and many non-First Nations people also participate in that. The traditional way of living helps supplement food costs up here.
Interviewer: What inspired you to create your current startup?
When the pandemic hit, the supply chain started to tighten, and the store shelves started to go bare, it was like, “Okay, what can we do to make a difference and an impact? How can we empower people?”
I’m not a technical founder, so there are some challenges, but we have experience in business planning in the cannabis space. I remember solving several case studies about the agriculture space while in university, and something that stood out for me was plant tissue culture. It’s about creating a scale economy for micro-propagating plants. This is done through duplication; cutting off a plant, taking that little trim, turning it in from 1 to 4 to 16, and so forth. What’s exciting is that you can create 10,000 plants over four to five months.
It’s not a well-known process, but it’s been around since 1906. A lot of mystery has been built around this process of creating plants. When we chat with some of the technical experts helping us with this, they would describe it as black art. It’s between science and art. There’s this formulation recipe you have to create, and then you put the plant into this little agar solution, which is a growing chemical bath containing nutrients and amino acids.
We saw that in cannabis, especially in the United States. Many companies were using tissue culture for maintaining genetics, but also for efficient crop planning and production schedules for nurseries.
We realized this was a very plausible option and wondered what the barriers people were facing in using this technology were. We had this really unique opportunity right at the start of the pandemic in the Yukon. Every year, the government hosts something called Innovation Week, where they call for ideas to help out with the impact of the pandemic.
We submitted our idea to build a mobile lab unit and ended up being the runner-up; that was enough to get us started on Replic8tech. From there, we started engaging farmers, and they started sharing some of their pain points. We had one farmer in particular who tried multiple forms of propagation for his Haskaps plants but needed help getting those going.
Interviewer: How did you decide on Haskaps?
We decided that Haskaps would be the first plant we would focus on for this. Haskaps, I like to think of them as a cross between a blueberry and a grape. They’re high-antioxidant berries that grow in Northern Russia and also in Hokkaido, Japan. Because they grow in these colder climates, they do great in the Yukon.
We started doing some research on Haskaps and creating formulations for tissue culture. What if we take all the high-producing plants in the field and have a diverse sample size of that, and subsequently take those plants and turn the whole field into high-producing plants?
To put it into perspective, a Haskap plant can produce 8 to 10 pounds at full maturity. Some plants out there can do about 15 pounds of berries per harvest.
We can start using cuttings from those 15-pound plants and turning them into tens of thousands. Eventually, it’ll replace some of those lower-producing plants until you suddenly have a field pumping out berries. The berry producers are earning more money, and more food is available for people living in the Yukon.
Interview: How do you think the media misrepresents lab-grown plants?
Genetic gratification is different from genetic modification. We’re not altering the plant’s genes; we’re just speeding up the process of breeding plants to produce a greater harvest. Some plants are mutants because they can survive, unlike others. We can copy these mutants and better prepare plants for drought conditions or better nutrient absorption.
We can look at unique applications as our climate changes for food producers. Right now, we’re looking at how we can create a new variety of strawberries that works for northern conditions without waiting 10 to 15 years for the traditional breeding schedule. Plants are slow. We must find ways to speed that up because the climate changes rapidly. Our needs are changing fast. Traditional supply chains aren’t going to cut it.
Interviewer: What are your thoughts on a price point for this type of project? Also, what are your thoughts on lab-made meat?
Joshua: First and foremost, everyone needs access to a diet that works for them. I’m not a hunter, but I do enjoy fishing on occasion. The Indigenous people here in the Yukon have inhabited this land for almost 10,000 years. Hunting is a big part of their way of life. Access to meat is definitely crucial. For Canadians that are looking for different options, plant-based proteins are fantastic. I like a diverse mixture in my diet, but I would rather buy meat than plant-based meat because of the price point. Pricing is everything.
We live in a time and age where convenience is at its highest peak in humanity. Access and diversity access are essential. There are so many different cultural backgrounds that exist in Canada. Therefore, it’s crucial that we keep that diversity there. We’re not focused on meat, but we can certainly help in the plant protein sector for some of those crops used for producing plant proteins. However, I’m not sure if it’s something that’s applicable to the Yukon since we have such a very short growing window, around 62 days, where we can grow plants outside.
Interviewer: What’s a challenge to some of these innovative farming?
In the Yukon, we’re constantly looking at alternative growing methods, such as indoor hydroponic and containerized farms. However, the cost of operating those can be a challenge. Getting labor is a big challenge here. Nobody from a local lens wants to be involved in these low-level labor jobs. We’re also competing with more prominent players with higher pay and benefits.
Interviewer: Can you tell us about your journey into entrepreneurship? How did your background or past affect your present career?
Joshua: I’ve co-owned a startup advisory for a while. That company helps us stay afloat while we work on this one. It’s also been great, as it’s helped us access the entrepreneurial ecosystem here in the Yukon. Because we’re working with small businesses with similar challenges, we’ve taken on a tremendous amount of knowledge in navigating challenges, from funding to tactics and strategies on how to engage with investors and increase your chances for success.
Interviewer: How do you make sure you stay sustainable?
Joshua: We’ve been taking a slow and methodological approach to scaling this company.
Currently, we’re working through feasibility. We want to ensure that the labs are efficient and that these costs provide value. Once we’re through that commercial feasibility stage, we’ll be looking at raising funds. Right now, it’s been a labor of love built through research.
Interviewer: How do you step into a field you have relatively no experience in?
Joshua: Most of my passion lies in problem-solving. I studied international studies and commerce in school. Later, I pursued a degree in business. I was a banker for a decade before moving to the Yukon. I don’t have a scientific background, but my partner and I just decided to jump into this technology and scientific process. We knew how to build a business and look at it through a finance lens. And we knew there was a problem that could be solved.
It’s been a really unique experience, and what we’ve learned is that there are a lot of great people out there that are willing to help and jump onto cool projects. Through outreach, we’ve connected with some people that have been able to help us move this research forward and help validate this crazy idea from the lens of a scientist and somebody with a doctorate in microbiology. The validation we’ve received from these experts has been the biggest green light in knowing our idea has the potential to turn into something extraordinary.
Interviewer: What do you think is the key to success in your industry?
Joshua: I think we have to be aligned with something that customers can use to achieve success. How we integrate and implement that is going to be the biggest objective. We need to consider how we’re going to increase the customer’s bottom line and reduce their risk from an operating point of view. We need to look at it through a lens of competition; know our competitors, how they operate, and how we can compete against them.
There are only so many tissue culture labs across the country. Anyone who wants to access these services must send plants and engage through long-distance channels. There’s a lot of risk in that. Our goal is to be methodological as possible and help make our customers the most money.
Interviewer: Do you think farming is a very rigid industry, or would you describe it as an industry that’s more flexible and progressing?
Joshua: In terms of methodologies, farming is a beautiful space because there’s more than one way to grow a plant. From that lens, there’s a lot of flexibility. From a bureaucratic lens, certain jurisdictions may be stuck in that polarisation, which can hold back innovation in space or alternative methodologies for growth. It just comes down to education and awareness. I also think that seeing is really believing for most people who have those positions. They need somebody to take that risk and just try it so they can see that it works.
Before the pandemic, I was very fortunate to be in Germany to attend one of the largest agriculture trade shows in the world called, Agritechnica. They have the future of farming there for you. It was like somebody sitting behind screens, and they’re controlling everything with robotics. Drones are flying over and spraying crops. Everything becomes automated. I was like, “Wow, this is a trade show and they’re demonstrating per concept, but this is the future. The future is moving into technology.
As agriculture continues to play a crucial role in shaping civilizations, the innovation, and evolution of agritechnology present a unique opportunity to tackle food insecurity on a global scale. Joshua Callahan’s story of the transition from a banker to an agritech entrepreneur highlights the potential of plant tissue culture in mitigating food shortage problems and empowering communities. The application of tissue culture in the Yukon to cultivate high-yielding Haskap plants highlights the positive impact this technology can have on local food systems. However, it also raises questions about the potential limitations and ethical considerations that come with relying on lab-grown plants in our food supply. As we strive towards a more sustainable and equitable food system, it’s important that we approach new technologies with a critical lens, examining both their benefits and limitations to ensure they align with our values and priorities.
For more information on plant culture technology please visit: https://www.linkedin.com/company/replic8-technologies/