Paul Truscott, business development manager at the Vineland research station in Ontario, Canada.

Paul Truscott, business development manager at the Vineland research station in Ontario, Canada.

Research is costly with little chance of a direct, let alone immediate, payoff. Just ask fruit breeders, who can labor for years testing new varieties designed to meet evolving consumer tastes and emerging environmental pressures. But a new approach to managing research at the Vineland research station in Ontario, Canada, known for its work developing fruit varieties, rootstocks, and projects in support of the province’s tender fruit and grape growers, will take a more entrepreneurial approach to research.

Announced in 2007, the Vineland Research and Innovation Center is in the midst of a major hiring drive that will boost staff to 40 by the end of 2010, up from less than a dozen a year ago. The transformation aims to make the former government research station, which had been in the care of the University of Guelph since the 1980s, largely self-sustaining.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs have both committed to funding research at Vineland through 2011, but the government commitments are meant to tide over the center while it musters private funding sources.

“The model going forward is that there’s supposed to be some sort of self-sustainability,” said Paul Truscott, business development manager for Vineland. “We’ve got this initial bolus of cash, and we’ve got to figure out how to basically keep ourselves self-sustaining through partnerships with industry in a wide variety of different mechanisms.”

Vineland’s transformation into a more entrepreneurial organization is modeled on similar initiatives in New Zealand and the United States, especially the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri.

Cash strapped

Truscott, who joined Vineland at the start of 2009, said the former arrangement with the University of Guelph left Vineland cash strapped. While the province’s agreement with the university required Guelph to support Vineland financially, it also left the station (and others the university had acquired) vulnerable to cost-cutting.

“These facilities ran into a state of decline because there was no money there to basically maintain and upgrade these facilities,” Truscott said, painting a bleak picture. “As things wore out, they weren’t replaced; as people retired, they weren’t back-filled, and so on and so forth. So, a number of these research stations fell into a state of decline, and this one in particular.”

The new arrangement aims to revitalize Vineland and position it as a private, not-for-profit research center. Its focus will continue to be exclusively on horticulture, but research funding is intended to come largely through partnerships and contracts with the private sector.

Truscott’s work as business development manager includes a wide range of activities, from leasing space to associations and companies active in areas where the center hopes to focus, to identifying research projects that match the center’s existing research expertise.

Current tenants include industry associations as well as the winery Foreign Affair and a Dutch greenhouse equipment manufacturer. Tenants from the tree fruit sector haven’t yet located at Vineland, but Truscott is in discussions with one for lab space.

Developing a portfolio of intellectual property that can generate ongoing revenue for the center is key to the funding model, Truscott added.

According to the center’s initial five-year plan, new ornamental and tree fruit cultivars suitable for adaptation to Canada are priorities for acquisition. Vineland also plans to assess tree fruit and grape cultivars already at Vineland to establish a licensing strategy. “It is expected that some licensing will occur by 2010,” the plan states. “Vineland will retain the ownership of all intellectual property developed by its scientists and will negotiate for commercialization and ownership rights with collaborators.”

Truscott has been approached by groups regarding projects dealing with nutriceuticals, biopesticides, and development of flowers and tree fruits with novel traits, but no deals have been signed.

Government funding

That’s left government funding providing most of the center’s revenue to date.

Ontario provided one-time grants of $12.5 million to the center in each of 2007 and 2008, for a total of $25 million, while the federal government has committed $15.5 million in cash and in-kind support over five years. A further $3.65 million from the federal and provincial governments will help cover salaries and planning initiatives, while an existing University of Guelph/Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs partnership agreement for agri-food research, teaching, and laboratory services provides $1.75 million a year.

The major contribution from industry to date is a $200,000 commitment from Flowers Canada, representing the floriculture industry, towards construction of a biological control facility. The Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association and Niagara Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association provided some initial start-up funding, and the Ontario Tender Fruit Board is contributing $25,000 a year towards the center’s breeding program.

Ontario Tender Fruit Board Manager Adrian Huisman said the pear breeding program is of particular interest, especially as the federal government prepares to withdraw from the work.

“We would like to see continued evaluation of these varieties as they are fireblight tolerant,” he said.

Huisman said the board is waiting for the center to get itself in order before making further commitments, however.

“[Vineland] has played an important role in managing strategic planning for the sector,” he said. “[Until] they decide what products they are offering, there is nothing more to rush into.”

Truscott said no one is expecting the center’s transition to self-sufficiency to happen overnight.

“We’re only a year and a half into our initial five-year plan,” he said. “We’re on our way, we’re moving towards it, but are we going to be fully self-sustaining in five years? I think people realize it’s going to be a long-term thing.”

Vineland at a glance

Vineland Research and Innovation Center in Vineland, Ontario, consists of 218 acres of experimental tender fruit and other orchards, vineyards, rotation crop areas, ornamental plantings, and 50,000 square feet of greenhouses. A total of 35 buildings offer 165,000 square feet of office and lab space adjacent to the main highway between Toronto and the U.S. border.

Key researchers at the center include Dr. Michael Brownridge, director of production systems, who hails from New Zealand; Dr. Isabelle Lesschaeve, director, consumer insights and product innovation (and a former director of the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario); Dr. Hannah Mathers, senior research fellow, horticulture production systems and an associate professor in the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science at Ohio State University; and Dr. Daryl Somers, director of applied genomics.