Bioeconomy needs support and capital investments

Sandy Marshall, executive director of Bioindustrial Innovation Canada, has been a leading voice for Canada’s emerging bioeconomy. The non-profit organization released its strategy for the emerging sector earlier this year

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BY Jeffrey Carter

While Canada is rich in terms of agricultural and forestry, it’s falling behind in developing those biomass resources.

Canada’s first national bioeconomy strategy, released earlier this year by

Bioindustrial Innovation Canada (BIC), outlines the shortcoming and proposes the path forward. Many of those same points were reiterated during the Canadian BioDesign Conference held in Sarnia on September 26.

Several of speakers at the conference said stakeholders, including farmers, forestry stakeholders and the growing list of companies that have developed various technologies to transform biomass into fuels and other sustainably produced products need to embrace a more collaborative approach.

“It’s important to be humble. There’s no way we can do everything ourselves. What we need is deliberate, intentional collaboration,” Dr. Hamdy Khalil, senior global director of The Woodbridge Group, said.

Woodbridge, which is headquartered in Mississauga, is best known for its production of seating foam and other interior requirements for the automotive sector. These include components made using bio-based products, such as soybeans, and the company has also invested heavily in developing what Khalil describes as a circular economy in which its products are repeatedly recycled.

He laments the lack of Canadian-produced bio-based materials and said Canada lags between other countries, including Nordic nations, in replacing petroleum-based products.

“It’s already happening and we need to be part of that group.”

Alex Ward, president of Canada research with California-based Origin Materials, and Alain Bourdages, vice-president of innovation and energy with Montreal-based Resolute Forest Products had similar comments. Origin is focused on the production of plant-based plastics while Resolute has invested millions to better utilize the fibre, sugars and cellulose in waste wood.

“We are not only making paper. We are a fibre company and we need to show the world we’re in the business of making things from fibre,” Bourdages said.

Ward, who said his company has faced several challenges in building commercial-scale plant, said bio-based products need to be easily dropped into existing infrastructure. Toward that end, his company has partnered with three large international companies, Nestlé Waters, Danone and PepsiCo, to commercialize carbon-negative, recyclable, plant-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic.

Bioindustrial Innovation Canada’s report, Canada’s Bioeconomy Strategy: Leveraging our Strengths for a Sustainable Future reflects the views of more than 400 industry representatives representing 146 companies and 62 industry associations.

The report identifies four priority areas and suggests that government in Canada moves quickly to embrace a cohesive national strategy.

“Canada’s efforts to measure and account for natural capital are fragmented and lagging despite having 10 per cent of the world’s forests, 60 per cent of the world’s fresh water lakes, more agricultural land per capita than any other country and 25 per cent of the worlds wetlands … Canada remains one of only 16 OECD countries without a bioeconomy strategy.”

The creation of agile regulations and government policy for the bioeconomy is the first priority listed. Given the uncertainties that come with developing new technologies, the BIC strategy recommends the creation of an industry advisory group for the bioeconomy.

“The group’s mandate would be to work with government to review regulations, offer technical guidance and associated policies that affect the development of the bioeconomy and provide advice on reforms,” the report states.

Biotechnologies developed in Canada not always exist in other jurisdictions. With an economy heavily focused on exports, regulatory requirements do not always line up.

“For example, Canada’s Arctic Apple was approved for deregulation in the US by the US Department of Agriculture before it was approved for sale in Canada by Health Canada … Canada’s system is less accountable and more prone to delays than in many countries.”

Regulation and policy should also promote the market uptake of bio-based products. Needed is a “level playing field” between products made from plants and products of the fossil fuel industry. In addition, support for companies beyond the demonstration stage is needed.

The establishment of a biomass supply and stewardship regimen is another priority area recommended by the BIC strategy. The idea is to better manage forestry, agricultural and other natural resources for future generations.

“Canada’s bioeconomy will be drive by a ‘green generation’ where consumer demand is for more sustainably-sourced products will push the market toward more validated sustainable bio-mass supply,” the report states.

“Sustainable resource management practices are currently in use in the forestry industry and 90 per cent of survey respondents would like to see agriculture adopt more sustainable practices and 87 per cent were in agreement that smarter production and resource management practices would lead to strong biomass value chains.”

A starting point may be to better inventory the biomass resources available in Canada, in both the forestry and agricultural sectors. Inventories are too often outdated, incomplete or too difficult to access.

The third priority area in the strategy is to build strong companies, including anchor companies to which other enterprises can attachments themselves to, and value chains.

“Anchor companies in the Canadian business environment face several barriers to growth. These include higher corporate taxes compared to the US, reasonable cost-capital to support scale-up and commercialization, access to large customers a regulatory environment that is frequently ‘out-of-sync’ with Canada’s major trading partners.”

Demand from large companies for bio-based products is needed but that’s hard to achieve, especially for new companies with limited scale. The BIC strategy suggests a public procurement policy linked to government infrastructure could help. One possibility would be to introduce ‘bio-preferred standards’ similar those already in place in the United States supporting bioplastics, second generation biofuels, biogas and other bioproducts.

Establishing a feedstock risk system would also help new companies by easing access to capital along with improved access to program and financial support. “With over 150 accelerators and incubators in Canada providing business management and mentorship support, less than 10 per cent are focused on supporting companies in the bioeconomy space.”

The fourth priority area outlined in the strategy concerns building strong sustainable ecosystems.

“Canada’s bioeconomy remains embryonic. Supply chains are still being developed, optimized and integrated. While some pioneering companies have successfully commercialized bio-based products, and small clusters have begun to appear, multiple companies partnering in the same value chain … rarely exist.”

For growth, regional governments and institutions need to understand and financially support the skills needed by the industry. There’s a demand for scientists, computer technicians, engineers and other professionals.

In addition, there’s a need for significant investments in agriculture and forestry infrastructure to support the industries’ adaptation to the bioeconomy.

The report also cited several case studies, including success stories, failure and the progress of enterprises that have yet to reach the commercialization stage.

Greenfield Global is the story of a success. The company began with a single alcohol processing plant in Tiverton 30 years ago and today has four distilleries in Eastern Canada and has plans to open a plant in Ireland. It’s an example of an anchor company with a focus on finding a market for all its product streams.

Along with production ethanol and alcohol, Greenfield markets feed ingredients, biomethane, carbon dioxide and has even found a market for its waste heat which supports a 90-acre greenhouse operation across the street from its plant in Chatham, Ontario.

Greenfield’s success can be contrasted with that of BioAmber and its succinic acid plant in Sarnia. Despite being provide with $30 million in public funding the company failed after less than two years of operation.

“A company that has been preoccupied with building a plant, putting in place the necessary workforce, and fine-tuning it operations may be surprised and challenged by the complexity of the value-chain adoption even if they have done their homework in identifying the markets and securing some customers,” the BIC report states.

“Companies should perhaps be required to assume business advisory services as part of the financing, particularly those that have benefited for public support.”

The project led by Comet Bio in Sarnia and the Cellulosic Sugar Producers Co-operative is an example of a joint enterprise moving toward commercialization. The cooperative is poised to introduce innovative technologies incorporating GPS, optic sensors to measure soil parameters, satellite imagery and as crop residues are harvested for processing while Comet is poised to move forward with its plant if additional investment capital can be obtained.

 

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