CelluForce: A scaling up success story
By Tamar Atik
Nov. 29, 2017 – Getting technology and innovations to a commercial scale may present unique challenges, but failure isn’t a bad thing, as Sébastien Corbeil of Quebec company CelluForce highlighted on Day Two of Scaling Up 2017.
For details on another scaling up success story, read the full Day One coverage.
Corbeil is president and chief executive officer of Quebec company CelluForce, which 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 noting that Celluforce’s partners being in the manufacturing sector has helped the company.
Perhaps a speedier process combined with the fact that Canada has more biomass per capita than any other country means the potential is great.