Enhancing automation in controlled environment agriculture farming

From: Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada

Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) is an indoor technology-based production system where crops are grown under a modified and highly conditioned environment. The greenhouse sector and its derivatives such as vertical farming and hydroculture are the most common forms of CEA used in horticultural production. The Canadian greenhouse industry is by far the largest and fastest growing segment of indoor farming. CEA production is labour intensive, requiring workers for a range of critical production tasks including propagation, planting, movement and management of plants, cleaning, harvesting, pest management, pruning, sorting and packaging. AAFC is launching a challenge to enhance automation in the production and harvesting operations of CEA facilities.

Challenge sponsor: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC)

Funding mechanism: Grant

Opening date: December 18, 2020
Closing date: January 19, 2021, 14:00 Eastern Standard Time

Prospective applicants should refer to the Innovative Solutions Canada Grant Instructions and Procedures document.

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Challenge

Problem statement

The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) projects that as the global demand for Canada's agricultural products increases, Canada's production output levels will also increase, requiring adjustments to workforce productivity. The agricultural sector in Canada already faces chronic labour shortages and has difficulty attracting and retaining workers. More specifically, the greenhouse industry has the largest labour gaps, with positions reportedly the toughest to fill, accounting for 59% of the industry workforce and 90% of the current labour gap. The COVID-19 pandemic further exposed the industry's vulnerabilities to labour shocks, which had an impact on the supply chain.

The financial impact of the labour shortages in this industry include lost sales due to planting and harvesting delays and losses, and delayed expansion plans.

In addition to labour shortages, barriers to greater sector automation have been associated with high costs and low profit margins for existing technology. Lowering the cost or improving the productivity of any automation solution would improve the Return on Investment (ROI) and enable the adoption and dissemination of new or improved CEA technology.

This challenge is seeking labour-saving automation and robotic technologies to reduce time spent on labour intensive tasks and reduce costs for CEA facilities. These labour intensive tasks include production (planting, trimming and pruning) and harvesting tasks.

Desired outcomes and considerations

Essential (mandatory) outcomes

The solution must:

  1. Be a new or adapted technology with the ability to enhance efficiency in CEA facilities. This could include, but is not limited to, reducing the average amount of time spent per worker on a specific task or reducing the number of workers required to perform a task;
  2. Increase accessibility, meaning that CEA facilities, from small to larger operations, can purchase and implement the technology in a method that is cost effective;
  3. Ensure the new technology adheres to all regulations (federal or provincial) connected to worker health and safety standards including any new COVID-related protocols in CEA facilities.

Additional outcomes

None identified for this challenge.

Background and context

Canada's horticultural sector is a key contributor to Canada's economy in terms of export sales and supporting jobs. Greenhouse vegetables are the largest contributor of vegetable exports, accounting for 51.3% of fresh produce exports. There is little market data on both vertical farms and indoor plant agriculture as these are generally very small in scale, experimental ventures. According to AAFC's Statistical Report on the Canadian Greenhouse Vegetable Industry, in 2019 there were a total of 838 commercial greenhouse vegetable operations with 17.5 million square meters of production area which produced over 660,535 metric tonnes of vegetables. There has been a steady increase in greenhouse vegetable production in Canada and it is anticipated that acreages in greenhouse vegetable production will continue to increase, following the decade long trend.

CAHRC forecasts that by 2025, Canada's demand for labour in the sector is expected to grow by 0.5% per year and the workforce is expected to shrink by 93,000 workers or 27% of the current number. As a result, the current labour gap is expected to double.

The total number of employees of specialized greenhouse operations has been relatively stable over the past five years. In 2019, 12,492 people were employed in the greenhouse vegetable sector: 7,347 permanent employees and 5,145 seasonal employees. Ontario accounted for 65% of the total number of greenhouse operation employees in Canada.

Maximum grant value and travel

Multiple grants could result from this Challenge.

Phase 1:

  • The maximum funding available for any Phase 1 Grant resulting from this Challenge is : $150,000.00 CAD
  • The maximum duration for any Phase 1 project funded by a grant resulting from this Challenge is up to 6 months
  • Estimated number of Phase 1 grants: 2

Phase 2:

  • The maximum funding available for any Phase 2 Grant resulting from this Challenge is : $1,000,000.00 CAD
  • The maximum duration for any Phase 2 project funded by a grant resulting from this Challenge is up to 24 months
    • Note: Only eligible businesses that have completed Phase 1 could be considered for Phase 2.
  • Estimated number of Phase 2 grants: 1

Note: Selected companies are eligible to receive one grant per phase per challenge.  

This disclosure is made in good faith and does not commit Canada to award any grant for the total approximate funding. Final decisions on the number of Phase 1 and Phase 2 awards will be made by Canada on the basis of factors such as evaluation results, departmental priorities and availability of funds. Canada reserves the right to make partial awards and to negotiate project scope changes.

Travel

No travel is anticipated.

Kick-off meeting

Teleconference/videoconference

Progress review meeting(s)

Teleconference/videoconference

Final review meeting

Teleconference/videoconference

All other communication can take place by telephone, videoconference, and WebEx.

Eligibility

Solution proposals can only be submitted by a small business that meets all of the following criteria:

  • for profit
  • incorporated in Canada (federally or provincially)
  • 499 or fewer full-time equivalent (FTE) employeesFootnote *
  • research and development activities that take place in Canada
  • 50% or more of its annual wages, salaries and fees are currently paid to employees and contractors who spend the majority of their time working in CanadaFootnote *
  • 50% or more of its FTE employees have Canada as their ordinary place of workFootnote *
  • 50% or more of its senior executives (Vice President and above) have Canada as their principal residenceFootnote *

Evaluation criteria

The applicant must complete the Challenge Stream Electronic Submission Form with a degree of information sufficient to enable Canada's assessment of the proposal against the criteria and the Evaluation Schema. The information must demonstrate how the proposal meets the criterion.

Part 1: Mandatory Criteria

Proposals must meet all mandatory criteria identified by achieving a "Pass" in order to proceed to Part 2. Proposals that do not meet all mandatory criteria will be deemed non-responsive and given no further consideration.

Mandatory Criteria

(Applicant's proposal must address)

Question 1 a: Scope

Describe the proposed solution and demonstrate how it responds to the challenge. Include in your description the scientific and technological basis upon which the solution is proposed and clearly demonstrate how the solution meets all of the Essential (Mandatory) Outcomes (if identified) in the Desired Outcomes section in the Challenge Notice.

Evaluation Schema (Mandatory — Pass/Fail)

Pass

The Applicant's proposed solution is clearly articulated, within the scope for the challenge and addresses all Essential (Mandatory) Outcomes (if identified) in the Challenge Notice.

Fail

The proposed solution is articulated as out of scope for the challenge.
OR
The proposal does not clearly demonstrate how the proposed solution addresses all Essential Outcomes listed in the challenge.
OR
The proposed solution is poorly described and does not permit concrete analysis.
OR
There is little to no scientific and/or technological evidence that the proposed solution is likely to meet the challenge.

Question 2: Current Technology Readiness Level (TRL)
  • Indicate the current TRL of the proposed solution. (Drop Down Menu of the Challenge Stream Electronic Submission Form)
  • Describe the research and development activities that have taken place to bring the proposed solution to the stated TRL.
Evaluation Schema (Mandatory — Pass/Fail)

Pass: The Applicant has demonstrated that the proposed solution is currently between TRLs 1 and 6 (inclusive), and provided justification by explaining the research and development (R&D) that has taken place to bring the solution to the stated TRL.

Fail: The Applicant has not provided sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the current TRL is between 1 to 6 (inclusive) including:

  • There is insufficient/no evidence provided for TRL judgment.
  • The solution involves the development of basic or fundamental research.
  • The solution is demonstrated at TRL 7 or higher.
  • Insufficient/unclear/no justification explaining the R&D that took place to bring the solution to the stated TRL.
  • The explanation simply paraphrases the description of a given TRL level.
Question 3a: Innovation

Demonstrate how the proposed solution meets one or more of the ISC definitions of innovation below:

  • An inventionFootnote *, new technology or new process that is not currently available in the marketplace.
  • Significant modifications to the application of existing technologies/components/processes that are applied in a setting or condition for which current applications are not possible or feasible.
  • An improvement in functionality, cost or performance over an existing technology/process that is considered state-of-the-art or the current industry best practice.
Evaluation Schema (Mandatory — Pass/Fail)

Pass:

The Applicant has demonstrated that the proposed solution meets one or more of the ISC definitions of innovation.

Fail:

  • Applicant has not provided sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the proposed solution meets any of the ISC definitions of innovation; OR
  • Applicant has demonstrated that the proposed solution is an incremental improvement, "good engineering", or a technology that would go ahead in the normal course of product development (i.e. the next version or release).
Question 3b: Advance on State of the Art

Describe in detail the competitive advantages and level of advancement over existing technologies. Where appropriate, name existing technologies as well as potential substitutes or competitors.

To demonstrate this, proposals should include the following information:

  • Improvements (minor or major) over existing technologies or substitutes. Use direct comparison.
  • How the proposed innovation will create competitive advantages in existing market niches or market spaces.
Evaluation Schema (Mandatory Criteria — Pass/Fail + Points)

0 points/Fail:

  • The Applicant has not demonstrated that the proposed solution advances the state-of-the-art over existing technologies, including available competing solutions; OR
  • The proposed solution improves minimally upon the current state of the art, though not sufficiently enough to create competitive advantages in existing market niches; OR
  • The stated advancements are described in general terms but are not substantiated with specific, measurable evidence.

5 points/Pass:

  • The Applicant has demonstrated that the proposed solution offers one or two minor improvements to existing technologies, including available competing solutions, that have potential to create competitive advantages in existing market niches.

12 points/Pass:

  • The Applicant has demonstrated that the proposed solution offers three or more minor improvements to existing technologies, including available competing solutions, that together are likely to create competitive advantages in existing market niches; OR
  • The Applicant has demonstrated that the proposed solution offers one significant improvement to existing technologies that is likely to create competitive advantages in existing market niches

20 points/Pass:

  • The Applicant has demonstrated that the proposed solution offers two or more significant improvements to existing technologies, including available competing solutions that are likely to create competitive advantages in existing market niches and could define new market spaces; OR
  • The Applicant has demonstrated that the proposed solution can be considered a new benchmark of state of the art that is clearly ahead of competitors and that is likely to define new market spaces

Part 2: Point-Rated Criteria

Proposals must meet the overall minimum pass mark of 50% to be deemed responsive. Proposals that do not achieve the minimum pass mark will be declared non-responsive and given no further consideration.

Point-Rated Criteria

(Applicant's proposal to address)

Question 1b: Scope

Demonstrate the scientific and technological basis of how the proposed solution addresses the Additional Outcomes(if identified) in the Desired Outcomes section in the Challenge Notice. If no Additional Outcomes are identified in the Challenge Notice, text entered in this section will not be considered.

If no Additional Outcomes are identified in the Challenge Notice, Applicants will receive 10 points.

Evaluation Schema (Point-Rated)
  1. Insufficient or no information provided to demonstrate that the solution will address any of the Additional Outcomes. 0 points
  2. Information provided clearly demonstrates that the solution will address some (<50%) of the Additional Outcomes. 3 points
  3. Information provided clearly demonstrates that the solution will address most (50% or more) of the Additional Outcomes. 6 points
  4. Information provided clearly demonstrates that the solution will address all (100%) of the Additional Outcomes. 10 points
Question 4: Phase 1 Science and Technology (S&T) Risks

Describe potential scientific and/or technological risks to the successful development of the proof of feasibility and how they will be mitigated in Phase 1.

Evaluation Schema (Point-Rated)
  1. Insufficient or no information provided to demonstrate that the Applicant has considered potential risks and mitigation strategies and/or information provided contains significant gaps. 0 points
  2. Information provided demonstrates that the Applicant has considered some potential risks and associated mitigation strategies but there are minor gaps in risks and/or associated mitigation strategies. 5 points
  3. Information provided clearly demonstrates that the Applicant has sufficiently considered the risks and defined associated mitigation strategies. 10 points
Question 5: Phase 1 Project Plan

Demonstrate a feasible Phase 1 project plan by completing the table.

  • Indicate if any milestones and activities will be completed concurrently
  • Indicate the estimated exit TRL at the completion of Phase 1. (Drop Down Menu of the Challenge Stream Electronic Submission Form)
Evaluation Schema (Point-Rated)
  1. Insufficient or no information provided to demonstrate a feasible project plan for Phase 1 and/or the project plan exceeds the maximum duration indicated in the Challenge Notice. 0 points
  2. Project plan for Phase 1 is conceivably feasible but not clearly demonstrated and/or includes gaps. 10 points
  3. Information provided clearly demonstrates a feasible project plan for Phase 1. 20 points
Question 6: Phase 1 Project Risks

Describe potential project risks to the successful development of the proof of feasibility and how they will be mitigated in Phase 1.

Applicants should address the following risks, as applicable:

  • Human Resources
  • Financial
  • Project Management
  • Intellectual Property
  • Other project-related risks

Note to Applicants: S&T risks should not be included in this section. Question 4 addresses S&T risks.

Evaluation Schema (Point-Rated)
  1. Insufficient or no information provided to demonstrate that the Applicant has considered potential risks and mitigation strategies and/or information provided contains significant gaps. 0 points
  2. Information provided demonstrates that the Applicant has considered some potential risks and associated mitigation strategies but there are minor gaps in risks and/or associated mitigation strategies. 5 points
  3. Information provided clearly demonstrates that the Applicant has sufficiently considered the risks and defined associated mitigation strategies. 10 points
Question 7: Phase 1 Implementation Team

Demonstrate how the project implementation team has the required management and technological skill sets and experience to deliver the project plan for Phase 1 by completing the table. A member of the implementation team can have more than one role.

Evaluation Schema (Point-Rated)
  1. Insufficient or no information provided to demonstrate that the project team has the required management and technological skill sets and experience to deliver the Phase 1 project plan. 0 points
  2. Information is provided but there are minor gaps in required management and/or technological skill sets and/or experience to deliver the Phase 1 project plan. 10 points
  3. Information provided clearly demonstrates that the project team has the required management and technological skill sets and experience to deliver the Phase 1 project plan. 20 points
Question 8: Inclusivity

If your business were to receive funding from Innovative Solutions Canada, describe what actions (e.g., recruitment strategy, internships, co-op placements, etc.) might be taken in Phase 1 to support the participation of under-represented groups (e.g., women, youth, persons with disabilities, Indigenous people, visible minorities) in the research and development of the proposed solution. Each Applicant in their response to this question must focus only on describing relevant programs, policies, or initiatives that it currently has in place or would put in place to support the R&D effort in Phase 1.

Note: Do not provide any personal information of individuals employed by your company or that of your subcontractors in the response.

Evaluation Schema (Point-Rated)
  1. No description and/or concrete examples of actions provided that would be taken to encourage greater participation of under-represented groups. 0 points
  2. A description and concrete examples of actions to encourage greater participation of under-represented groups provided.5 points
Question 9: Phase 1 Financial Proposal

Demonstrate a realistic financial proposal for the Phase 1 project plan by completing the table.

Evaluation Schema (Point-Rated)
  1. Insufficient information provided and/or information provided significantly lack credibility. Does not demonstrate a realistic financial proposal for the Phase 1 project plan. 0 points
  2. Information is provided but some costs lack credibility and/or are unclear for the Phase 1 project plan. 7.5 points
  3. Information provided contains credible elements to clearly demonstrate a realistic financial proposal for the Phase 1 project plan. 15 points
Question 10: Phase 1 Financial Controls, Tracking and Oversight

Describe the financial controls, tracking and oversight that will be used to manage the public funds throughout Phase 1. Applicants should indicate if an individual or firm will be managing the public funds and provide their credentials and/or relevant experience.

Evaluation Schema (Point-Rated)
  1. Insufficient or no information provided to demonstrate the Applicant's ability to manage public funds in Phase 1. 0 points
  2. Information provided is vague and/or contains gaps. The Applicant has some controls, tracking and/or oversight in place to manage the public funds in Phase 1. 5 points
  3. Information provided clearly demonstrates that the Applicant has strong financial controls, tracking and oversight to manage public funds in Phase 1. 10 points
Question 11: Phase 2 Overview

Demonstrate a realistic overview for the prototype development plan if selected to participate in Phase 2.

Responses should include:

  • key tasks
  • estimated cost for materials
  • human resources
  • project risks and mitigation strategies

Note: A more detailed proposal will be requested if selected to participate in Phase 2.

Evaluation Schema (Point-Rated)
  1. Insufficient or no information provided to demonstrate that the Applicant has contemplated a realistic overview for the Phase 2 prototype development. 0 points
  2. Information provided demonstrates a conceivably realistic overview for Phase 2 prototype development, however there are gaps and/or the strategy is vague. 6 points
  3. Information provided demonstrates that the Applicant has a clear and realistic overview. 12 points
Question 12: Commercialization Approach

Demonstrate a realistic overall commercialization approach/business model that can successfully take the technology/service to market, and how the technology/service will help you develop and sell other products.

Responses should include:

  • Target markets (excluding Government of Canada)
  • Non-ISC funding sources
  • Transition to a commercially-ready product or service
  • Any other indicators of commercial potential and commercial feasibility

Note: A more detailed proposal will be requested if selected to participate in Phase 2.

Evaluation Schema (Point-Rated)
  1. Insufficient or no information provided to demonstrate that the proposed solution has commercial potential. 0 points
  2. Some information provided to demonstrate that the proposed solution has commercial potential, however there are gaps in the commercialization approach. 6 points
  3. A realistic commercialization approach is provided that demonstrates that the proposed solution has commercial potential. 12 points
Question 13: Resulting Benefits to Canada

Describe the benefits that could result from the commercialization of the proposed solution. Applicants should consider the potential benefits using the following three categories and provide justification for each claim:

  • Innovation Benefits: Expected contribution towards the enhancement or development of new industrial or technological innovations within your firm. Responses could include: potential spillover benefits, creation of intellectual property, impact on productivity of the new technology, etc.
  • Economic Benefits: Forecasted impact on the growth of Canadian firms, clusters and supply chains, as well as its expected benefits for Canada's workforce. Responses could include: number of jobs created, number of high-paying jobs, investment in Canada's economy, etc.
  • Public Benefits: Expected contribution to the broader public to the degree that the solution is expected to generate social, environmental, health, security or other benefits to Canada. Responses could include: solution-related environmental benefits, solution-related accessibility benefits, and solution-related impact on Indigenous communities.
Evaluation Schema (Point-Rated)
  1. Innovation Benefits

    Benefit not identified or insufficient claim of benefit. 0 points

    Benefit has marginal increment or limited justification. 1 point

    Benefit is significant and well justified. 2 points

  2. Economic Benefits

    Benefit not identified or insufficient claim of benefit. 0 points

    Benefit has marginal increment or limited justification. 1 point

    Benefit is significant and well justified. 2 points

  3. Public Benefits.

    Benefit not identified or insufficient claim of benefit. 0 points

    Benefit has marginal increment or limited justification. 1 point

    Benefit is significant and well justified. 2 points

Questions and answers

All incoming questions regarding this specific challenge should be addressed to solutions@canada.ca.

All enquiries must be submitted in writing no later than ten calendar days before the Challenge Notice closing date. Enquiries received after that time may not be answered.

You can also consult the Frequently asked questions about the Innovative Solutions Canada Program.

A glossary is also available.

Is the challenge exclusive to a greenhouse environment (or greenhouse environments)? Is this program open to automating the production of mushrooms in controlled environments?

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) wants to refer to this challenge as "controlled environment agriculture farming", thus it includes all forms of controlled environment farming including greenhouses and mushroom operations.

Will productivity enhancing technologies be considered equally with those that reduce labour needs?

Both will be considered equally. As proposals are developed, applicants are encouraged to review the Innovative Solutions Canada Grant Instructions and Procedures document and specifically Part 4 – Evaluation procedures, proposal selection and grant award and Attachment 1—Evaluation criteria – Phase 1.

Is it possible to make 2 proposals? Why does question 5 drop down menu only list up to TRL6?

We draw your attention to paragraph 3.1.9 in the Innovative Solutions Canada Grant Instructions and Procedures document:

"Unless otherwise stated in the Challenge Notice, applicants must only submit one proposal per Challenge. If more than one proposal is submitted for a Challenge only the last proposal submission will be considered. The last proposal submission will be determined by the system time stamp or the email time stamp in cases where the ISC Secretariat has approved delivery via email."

As such only one proposal is permitted for this challenge.

In addition, please note section 1.2.1 (Challenge Stream) of the Innovative Solutions Canada Grant Instructions and Procedures document that indicates that for Phase 1 (Proof of feasibility), applicants are invited to submit proposals for solutions within Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 1-6 (inclusive) to address a specific challenge issued by the program. Furthermore, applicants are encouraged to progress their solution as far as possible on the TRL scale, but note that Canada will only fund R&D through an ISC grant up to the end of TRL 6 under Phase 1.

This is why Question 5 (Phase 1 Project Plan) only provides the option of TRLs 1 to 6.

Is cannabis considered in scope for the recent “Enhancing automation in controlled environment agriculture farming” challenge?

The challenge is based upon automation of technology in controlled environment agriculture and does not differentiate between crop types.

The range of TRL specified for Phase 1 application is TRL1-6. However, no range is specified for Phase 2. We need to know the range expectation for Phase 2 because Question 11 of the Phase 1 evaluation criteria expects to demonstrate a realistic overview for the prototype development plan if selected to participate in Phase 2. As an example, let us consider a product/ solution is currently developed to TRL 1. Suppose the phase 1 project funding support (6 months, $150,000) will take it to TRL 2. Is this acceptable?

As noted in section 1.2.1 (Challenge Stream) in the Innovative Solutions Canada Grant Instructions and Procedures document, the objective of Phase 2 is to continue the R&D efforts of the proposed solution with the goal of developing a prototype ready for commercialization up to the end of TRL 9. Funding recipients are encouraged to progress their solution as far as possible on the TRL scale during this phase.

In short, the Phase 2 technology readiness level (TRL) begins where the Phase 1 project ends. For example, if a Phase 1 project ended at TRL 2, then the Phase 2 project would start at that TRL.

All applicants are encouraged to read the Innovative Solutions Canada Grant Instructions and Procedures document and specifically Part 4 - Evaluation procedures, proposal selection and grant award.

Is it possible to submit our proposal to the Enhancing automation in controlled environment agriculture farming challenge and to the Agri-science Program, considering that Agri-science supports a maximum of 50% of the expenses and that the cumulative government aid is 85%?

We encourage you to review the Innovative Solutions Canada Grant Instructions and Procedures document to ensure you understand the terms and conditions for this challenge and specifically section 4.5 Stacking Limits

We cannot comment on the details and parameters of other programs but you should also take the time to read over those terms and conditions in order to make an informed decision regarding any proposal submission.

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