Winnipeg company’s ‘weather in a box’ technology helps feed the world
A researcher at the University of Sheffield works in a Conviron walk-in chamber.
A sign near Conviron's head office complex in Winnipeg reminds employees just how important their work is; it helps feed the world, improve human health and protect the environment.
“We never get tired of that. Our employees never get tired of that,” says Steve Kroft, president and CEO. “ We know that we have a really important role to play.”
Conviron accomplishes this feat with controlled environment facilities that are used in agricultural research and for growing plants. Worldwide, the company is the largest designer and supplier of plant growth chambers, rooms and controls that help universities, government agencies and agricultural biotech companies solve food production and safety challenges.
Kroft describes Conviron's product as providing the equivalent of “weather in a box.” It mimics outside conditions and changing seasons over time through the automated control of temperature, light, humidity, irrigation and nutrients. In effect, it's a specialized type of high-tech greenhouse with environmental factors that can be precisely controlled, Kroft says.
Conviron equipment has been used around the world in a wide range of applications. These include testing the impact of climate change on crops, and food and agricultural research at top universities. Cambridge University has 37 walk-in rooms used for plant research.
The company's equipment also played a role in developing an Ebola virus vaccine. Tobacco plants were grown by researchers at Guelph University with monitoring and control systems created by Conviron. Those plants created antibodies that were used to develop vaccines for the Sudan strain of Ebola.
Another example can be found at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, where researchers developed Vitamin A enriched rice, “golden rice”, using Conviron equipment. The breakthrough helped address the epidemic of Vitamin-A deficiency in Africa affecting children.
For a company with a large reach, Conviron is still a lean, family business that operates in a niche market. It has 230 employees in Canada and 30 around the world.
Kroft, whose grandfather was in the grain business, has distinct memories of exporters stopping by the house to do business. In 1964, Kroft's grandfather lent his dad, another entrepreneurial spirit, $35,000 as seed-money for Conviron. From the beginning, the company's outlook was global.
“For my dad, the world was a small place,” Kroft says. “This little Winnipeg company had product in most provinces in China by the 1970s.”
Without trade facilitation, none of that would have been possible. Only about 15% of Conviron's revenue comes from sales in Canada. The balance comes from selling equipment in almost 100 countries.
Kroft says trade deals like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) will add to the momentum for growth and encourage more trade with countries around the world.
“We are highly respected around the world and the fact that we are a Canadian manufacturer adds to that respect,” Kroft says.
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