Unity in the pursuit of a global bioeconomy

Tamar Atik
November 29, 2017
Written by
Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada opened up Day 2 of the 2nd annual Scaling Up conference in Ottawa.
Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada opened up Day 2 of the 2nd annual Scaling Up conference in Ottawa.
Nov. 29, 2017 – “Keep up the pressure for a bioeconomy.” That is Green Party leader Elizabeth May’s message to the industry today at Day 2 of Scaling Up 2017.

 

The conference’s first day included discussions about the global bioeconomy future, examples of bio-technology being implemented today, the government’s role, and forestry’s role. Read the full coverage.

Meeting climate targets

Canada is chairing the G7 Summit in 2018 and May noted that climate being one of the three topics is an important opportunity for Canada and other countries to make moves toward creating a more sustainable planet.

May also said reaching the Paris Agreement target is a priority for many leaders. That was echoed by Backcasting SAS president Pierre-Alain Schieb. He said coalitions and alliances are also taking part, adding there is a notion that the industry can take over, to a certain extent, where the public authorities cannot lead.

Schieb said the industry has pooled its resources to start leading the way to a bioeconomy. “We’ll see those initiatives multiply,” he said. “The more we wait to invest in the bioeconomy, the more the chemical industry is investing and getting further ahead.”

Ted Michaels, partner at AJW Inc., said multiple opportunities exist for multiple sectors including the bioeconomy. This is called the circular economy.

The circular economy promotes economic growth while increasing economic competitiveness and creating jobs. It’s lead by the private sector and produces environmental benefits.

“We have to find new ways to keep materials at their highest utility and value at all times,” Michaels said. “In the end if we’re successful, we’re going to extract less non-renewable resources from the Earth.”

Getting to a commercial scale

Getting technology and innovations to a commercial scale may present unique challenges, but it is possible, as this technology panel highlighted.

Sébastien Corbeil is president and chief executive officer of Quebec company CelluForce. It deconstructs wood fibres and breaks them all the way down into nanofibrils and cellulose chains.

The resulting material can be applied in a variety of markets from gas to polymers.

Starting from wood pulp, Corbeil said supply of feedstock is not issue. He said selecting applications is the biggest challenge.

Celluforce’s story dates back to 2005 when FPInnovations began looking at commercially producing nanomaterials.

When the technology was ready, Celluforce was launched in 2011 by Domtar and FPInnovations – its first shareholders.

A $35-million demo plant was built in Windsor, Que. It was the world’s first Cellulose NanoCrystals (CNC) production plant, but it wasn’t successful. The investment was steep, and money ran out.

Domtar didn’t reinvest, convinced there was no market for the product. The Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC), and oil-field services company Schlumberger brought in some more capital and invested. The latter became the first customer.

Brazilian pulp and paper company Fibria also joined in on investment, and Celluforce had a dedicated team in it for the long-run.

Corbeil said though it failed, the operating plant provided a good learning opportunity on how to improve footprint and cost of operations. “In retrospect, it was a good thing. It allowed us to learn a lot about how to improve the process,” he said.

“It also gave us credibility. Companies need to have faith in you and some confidence to invest.”

He added it is key to keep refining and to work twice as hard on developing applications.

Corbeil said Celluforce explains to potential shareholders how long it takes to develop a new product. “It actually takes longer than drug and aircraft introduction.” He said investors need to have patience with product development.

“Educating customers on how to use the product and how to disperse it is very important on how to speed up the process,” he said.

He noted that Celluforce’s partners being in the manufacturing sector has helped them.

Focusing on investment was also Martin Tangney’s advice. His company Edinburgh, Scotland-based Celtic Renewables Ltd., won the Most Innovative Biotech SME in Europe 2015 for his whiskey-fuelled car innovation.

The company was formed in 2012 and Tangney said this is a landmark because 80 per cent of U.K. start-ups are dead within five years. “We have spent so much time raising money… It is the most difficult thing for start-ups.”

Tangney enlightened the room with his explanation of how whiskey residues can be used for this environmentally friendly vehicle solution.

It has been made clear partnerships with investors and government are the next steps to create a global bioeconomy from existing innovations.

Although it’s a slow process, perhaps the industry will have scaled up just a bit further by the conference’s third edition in 2018.

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