When Alberta’s Food Processing Division hosts workshops, the emphasis is on “work.” They do not take place on a university campus with verdant green spaces where academics sit and ponder the meaning of DNA, or in a richly appointed convention center with a cappuccino bar across from every washroom. They take place in Leduc, Alberta, at one of Canada’s largest industrial parks dedicated primarily to the oil and food sectors – mainstays of Alberta’s economy.

It’s a complex for working Albertans and the leading agricultural facilities in the park are the combined Food Processing Development Center and Agrivalue Processing Business Incubator.

But if you’re expecting the center to offer chandelier-lined auditoriums with a multiplex of audio-visual support systems, forget it. The facility is made up of dozens of concrete rooms, large and small, equipped with leading-edge processing equipment, laboratories, taste-testing facilities, a staff of professionals and on-site federal food inspectors with a beefed-up security system to ensure the privacy of processing companies. The companies that use the center are based primarily in Canada, but also travel there from the US, Europe, Asia and Latin America and range in size from the largest national and international firms to small, one-person startup operations.

Ken Gossen, director, says the center started out as a 30,000-sq.-ft. product development center that concentrated entirely on developing new products. However, it has since been expanded three times to accommodate companies that had developed a product and then wanted to test market the product, manufacture it, take it to the market, sell it and store their inventory at the facility.

“Several wanted to produce their product out of the facility for a period of time,” he says. “So we had to expand our coolers and freezers to accommodate that.

“Then we realized that companies were having a difficult time going from the test-marketing phase to actually running their own company,” he adds. “At the time in Alberta, we didn’t have a lot of co-packers and it’s very expensive to get into the food business.

“So, in 2007 we added the Agrivalue Processing Business Incubator where companies can graduate from the food processing development center side and move to the incubator and run their business out of the center for a period of three to five years,” he says.

Gord DeJong, technical operations manager at the center, has nothing but praise for the people who launched the facility. “People that have been in place here over the past 30 years have done a marvelous job of growing the business and proving themselves to industry. We have a lot of success stories,” he says. “It takes a lot of work to make that happen and it comes down to building a reputation for yourself.

“If you’re going to work with industry, you have to work the way industry works,” he adds. The center is a multi-tenant facility with a wide variety of sensitive processing projects actively underway simultaneously.

“Confidentiality comes up on a regular basis,” he says. “And, it’s something we have to work very hard at managing. If we can’t manage that, and don’t manage that, we’re going to lose the trust of our clients…and we can’t afford that.”

DeJong describes the facility as a part of the industry that is “incubating business and helping companies start new business, whether it’s an existing company or a new company. We will help them do that from start to finish at a reduced risk,” he says.

“You can start off with trying to get your first order here or, you can be on the other end where you’ve already done all the R&D work yourself and you just need a facility to get up and running – maybe you’ve got an order but don’t have the funds to go out and build a facility,” he adds. “In that situation they can move into the incubator and within two months they can be shipping product.

“Or, if they have an idea and they need help developing that idea, we can do that and help them get their first sale,” he says. “Following that step they may start through the pilot plant, then graduate from the pilot plant over to the incubator and perhaps move into their own facility if that’s what it takes.”

Suppliers buy in

Tom Kittle, president of Lake Forest, Ill.-based Handtmann Inc., has been involved with the center for about a year.

“The concept was very attractive to me,” he says. “It’s different than the traditional way of meeting, greeting and talking to our customers. It didn’t take me very long to say ‘Yes, I want to be part of this thing.’”

The Handtmann Group, based in Biberach, Germany, with about 100 plants, subsidiaries and agents worldwide, is a recognized leader in the manufacture of vacuum fillers and portioning systems for the food-processing sector.

He says the first thing that attracted him to the center was the fact that it offers “a focused approach to a targeted group of processors.

“It’s a very unique way of offering this service to the meat industry. The set-up is fantastic,” he adds. “It gives it a real, live meat-plant feel.”

He says the location of the center, which is close to Edmonton International Airport, was also attractive.

Kittle says Handtmann’s involvement in the workshops gives customers a “hands-on” experience with the company’s latest innovations. It also gives company representatives an opportunity to see what new ideas the workshops would generate with customers, with the right people on hand to answer questions.

“The intimacy of this setting is very valuable,” he says.

Larry Passmore’s first involvement with the center was about three years ago, as part of trade show for Canadian producers where various equipment lines were demonstrated.

“I was very impressed with the facility when I saw it,” he says. “It’s state-of-the-art.”

As the director of technical services for World Pac International Canada Inc., he says: “To have a facility that has a business incubator that will allow a business to grow and mature without incurring a lot of debt is a fantastic idea. Obviously, it’s not free, but it sure beats putting a business out there and going bankrupt down the road because of overhead.”

Passmore says he was also impressed with the fact that the center has top-notch meat scientists, R&D, labs, test kitchens, high-pressure pasteurization chambers and operates under federal inspection.

He says if he were someone wanting to get into the processing industry, he would make use of the Leduc facility. “It’s the best way to do it.”

Concerning the workshop, Passmore says that while the staff at the center are not professional event organizers, he was very impressed with the way the workshops were organized.

“Usually the controls in here are very tight, just like any meat processing operation,” he says. “We’ve respected that because there are actually ongoing businesses operating in here. But, you’d never know it while the workshop was taking place, that is how well organized the FPDC staff was in hosting the event while still dealing with the day-to-day business.”

To have four functioning meat plants operating in the incubator while conducting an innovation workshop, he said, was pretty impressive.

Large processing companies in Canada and the US have used the facility on a confidential basis because they can do complete testing in Alberta without disrupting their plants with testing and R&D to see if a project is feasible.

“Why not use the facility?” Passmore asked. “You enter into it on a contract basis and provide the center with a list of what equipment and services you need. You pay a fee and you use the facility for your project.”

Gil Williams, president of Poly-clip, USA, Mundelein, Ill., was first introduced to the Food Processing Development Center about two years ago. Founded in 1922, Germany-based Poly-clip produces clip closure systems for industries worldwide.

“We thought it would be of interest to customers because it was something different than you would find in the US; particularly the incubator concept for the meat business,” he says.

While Williams says the company hasn’t directed any customers with plans to develop a new product to the center yet, they and others attending the workshop will probably do so in the future.

“Typically, what they [start-ups] want to do is go into one of their own plants and borrow or rent equipment from the suppliers and run testing in the middle of one of their active meat plants, which is disturbing to the meat plant,” he says.

What Poly-clip did at the workshop, he adds, was to bring an intimate group together, away from the trade show concept and away from their own plant for hands-on demonstrations of what their equipment could do.

“So the center is a good way to get away to a remote location,” Williams says.