Network Focuses on Bio-Innovation to Drive Revolution

Heather Lynch

Canada is on the cusp of a bioeconomic revolution. With its foundation of expansive forests and agricultural land, Canada is poised to unlock the value of its bio-based resources potential.

While estimates suggest that Canada currently exploits only 5% of its bio-based potential, this percentage stands to explode upwards in the next 30 years, as more of our chemicals and materials come from biomass.

To pave the way for this opportunity, the Bio-innovative Renewables Network (BiRNet), is striving to align and lead Canada's applied research efforts to help create a bio-economy that is cost-competitive and focuses on renewable and recyclable products based on Canada's forestry and agricultural resources.

It's an exciting time for the Network; BiRNet was recently shortlisted for a funding opportunity that would flow $20M of federal funding over five years to its efforts. Paper Advance had the opportunity to connect with researchers leading the Network's efforts. Mark MacLachlan, the Nework's Scientific Director, is a chemistry professor at University of British Columbia, working in the area of materials chemistry and has actively collaborated with FPInnovations researchers for a decade to develop new materials and structures from cellulose nanocrystals; Warren Mabee, BiRNet Co-Scientific Director, is a forester with nearly three decades experience working in research and development around new bioproducts, and Alexandra Stuthridge, BiRNet Executive Director, is the Technical Business Manager of the BioProducts Institute (BPI).

Paper Advance:Can you identify what you consider the key characteristics of the forestry industry at this point in time that make it ripe for BiRNet?

Mark MacLachlan, Nework’s Scientific DirectorMark MacLachlan, Nework’s Scientific DirectorMM: Some parts of the Canadian forest industry have been on a substantial decline over the past two decades. The declining value of copy paper and newsprint in our digital world is making it tough to sustain all of the pulp mills we have. Mills have been shutting their doors and jobs have been lost. At the same time, large swathes of our forests have been devastated by the pine beetle, leaving opportunities to convert that wood into something useful.

WM: I think there are three important factors. As Mark noted, one is the ongoing structural change in the industry, with a long-term shift away from print-grade paper products towards packaging (and a corresponding drop in overall pulp and paper outputs), coupled with an emerging trend in the construction industry towards multi-storey, multi-unit homes, which will impact demand for lumber and solid wood products. The second factor is a changing climate, which is impacting forests and will likely change the availability and quality of different woods for the industry. The third important factor is the availability of several new tools, like genomics, which can let us access properties within biomass that were previously unavailable. Combined, there is a real opportunity to reimagine the Canadian and global forest sector.

AS: The Canadian forest industry is in transition towards a broader bioeconomy focus. But it has some unique features that set us apart from our bioeconomy competitors, such as Finland and Sweden. They do not have the tree species diversity, fibre resource stewardship models and geographical challenges for fibre recovery that we do. We need to turn this "complexity" into our advantage and leverage the billions of dollars already invested in forest sector infrastructure across our resource-dependent rural communities. In addition, industry is now 'thinking outside the box,' in terms of the types of products, value chains and non-traditional downstream partners they should be engaged with. As a result, we have observed a growing commitment by the sector and the provincial forest owners – as evidenced by our sector partnerships in BiRNet - to move beyond commodity manufacturing thinking and support the role of research and innovation to future-proof the industry.

PA: Why is it important to have a confluence of support for forestry, bioeconomy and the circular economy?

Warren Mabee, BiRNet Co-Scientific DirectorWarren Mabee, BiRNet Co-Scientific Director WM: One of the well-known constraints on the impact the bioeconomy can have is the (relatively) limited availability of biomass for new products every year. One of the ways that we can avoid this is by adopting key aspects of the circular economy, which essentially designs products for reuse and reapplication over multiple cycles. By extending the lifetime contribution of every fibre, we can magnify the impact of the bioeconomy in Canada and its markets tremendously. However, achieving these circular economy synergies will require sustained and strong support from all stakeholders in industry, academia, government, and our communities.

Adopting a circular bioeconomy, where products are made from biomass (forestry, agriculture, and marine) and get recycled allows us to reduce the carbon footprint of the materials we use, to extend the lifetime of the biomass through recycling, and take advantage of the unique structures and properties inherent in biomass. This last point is a very important one. In biomass, nature provides us with incredible complexity and remarkable structures that you can't make from traditional fossil oil. By harnessing these unique structures, we believe there are opportunities to make novel materials that could create high-value products for the forest industry. This requires additional research and the creation of a diverse innovation pipeline that manages risk and meets the commercial and societal needs of all participants. This is where BiRNet comes in. We can bring together and support researchers from across Canada to undertake strategic research in support of the bioeconomy that is well coordinated, avoids unnecessary duplication and leverages our partnership and investment capacity across multiple disciplines.

AS: It is also important to emphasize that we are not starting from scratch. We already have a high-impact, technically sophisticated bioeconomy in Canada involving more than 190 companies and generating over $4B in annual revenues from non-traditional products. This is a key strength. We also have a great opportunity to not only create new markets and industries as this emerging sector grows, but to attract high profile international investment and global consumer product partners from other sectors, such as those associated with the green chemicals, transportation and healthcare industries. The Canadian forestry sector has an exceptional opportunity to create the front end of the value chains these industries are actively building as part of a broader societal focus on production and use of sustainable, environmentally-friendly products.

PA: Can you describe the process behind establishing BiRNet? How did you 'pitch' the concept to stakeholders?

WM: The broader concept of BiRNet was conceived in a series of workshops beginning in 2016. In that year, one could argue the bioeconomy was not well-addressed by Canadian researchers. We had wound up the last network (BioFuelNet) that did work in this space and there was no clear organizing group to help accelerate research in this field. We immediately identified synergies with an emerging (but ultimately unsuccessful) Canada Supercluster proposal named 'BioDesign' and piggybacked a great deal of our outreach to stakeholders from their efforts and their strong desire to have an integrated academic vehicle in this space. BiRNet is essentially the result of a series of dialogues with stakeholders, informed by (but not driven by) the BioDesign proposal.

MM: The specific opportunity for the creation of BiRNet arose from a call for proposals to the federal government's Networks Centres of Excellence (NCE) program. There were many researchers across Canada already active in this space that – to various degrees – were already collaborating together. When the call for NCE proposals came out, we were well positioned to create and lead a large-scale initiative. In developing our BiRNet proposal, we held workshops with researchers and stakeholders, and we actively reached out to industry across Canada to learn about their needs and interest to partner with researchers in the Network. The response from industry was overwhelmingly positive and proved to us that there is a need for an academically-led entity like BiRNet.

Alexandra Stuthridge, BiRNet Executive DirectorAlexandra Stuthridge, BiRNet Executive DirectorAS: Traditionally, academic-based networks that have stakeholder (industry) participation have given them relatively little say in what science is undertaken, especially regarding more fundamental science. Where BiRNet sets itself apart is that we have created an organizational structure and business model that has a clear pathway from the fundamental science (technology push) to very applied research (market pull). This has allowed industry to be more involved at all stages of the innovation cycle with respect to directing and funding specific project portfolios that meet their current and future challenges and needs. As a result, BiRNet has now created a critical mass of research capacity and end-user demand – a 'centre of gravity' for bioeconomy innovation in Canada - that continues to attract new partners nationally and internationally.

PA: How would you characterize your relationship (or BiRNet's) with various levels of government? Are they a financial contributor? Is there an element of working to shape, or influence Government agendas and platforms? How important is alignment between BiRNet objectives and government priorities?

WM: Our positive and proactive relationships with governments, both Federal and Provincial, have always been an important component of our strategy. We have an integrated research theme structure that means that broader policy, regional and societal interests – beyond pure commercial outcomes – are continuously assessed and prioritized in our research program. We are also working with our partners in government to provide evidence-based recommendations, which can inform agendas, platforms and policies. This alignment with government priorities means BiRNet can actively help meet Canadian Green House Gas (GHG) emission reduction goals and complement a number of other initiatives the government is exploring, such as the growth and retention of new jobs in resource-dependent rural and indigenous communities.

AS: Two elements of the BiRNet investment plan are also important to emphasize. Firstly, both Provincial and Federal governments have made strong commitments to support the de-risking of new technology and product platforms with our industry partners. Secondly, our industry partners recognize the importance of co-investing with governments on common research that creates broader benefits for Canadian society.

PA: What do you consider BiRNet's biggest challenge? Most significant advantage? Biggest opportunity?

WM: Strategically, BiRNet's biggest challenge is to identify the best opportunities to use our unique biomass resources to help reduce GHG emissions in Canada, while contributing to employment and economic diversification goals. This is a challenge because there are so many choices available to the effective conversion of biomass to different bioproducts and markets. To address this, a great deal of pre-work has already been done by BiRNet on innovation roadmaps and techno-economic analyses to help narrow down these choices to those that have the biggest impact. This allows us to move very quickly and dynamically within our own research agenda. The biggest opportunity we have is to leverage the billions of dollars of investment already put into the traditional and non-traditional bioeconomy. There are technologies, tools, and partners already in existence - and we have incredibly strong support from industry - which means that we have an immediate uptake pathway for our ideas.

MM: This will depend on whether our current $25M+ stakeholder commitments are matched by Federal government funding through the NCE program. If we are funded, then our biggest challenge will be to get operations off the ground as quickly as possible. We are already in very good shape with an excellent Board of Directors in place. We also have many industrial partners across Canada that are ready to be involved. If we aren't funded, then we will need to look for other opportunities to build the Network and maintain the momentum we have created.

AS: BiRNets' advantage is that we have a very cohesive, diverse, connected and talented team ready to hit the road running. We have Canada's best minds in the area of the bioeconomy involved in this network, which will set a strong foundation for success. We have already received more than 70 science and industry proposal ideas. We truly believe we are poised to help Canada embrace an enormous opportunity to take a leadership role on the global stage in this area and set global standards and best practice to improve the lives for our current and future generations.

PA: You note that an objective of the Network is to connect with 'non-traditional' stakeholders. Can you provide some examples?

WM: BiRNet is not just an industry-academic partnership. In addition to governments at the Federal and Provincial levels, we are engaging with communities and have plans to reach out to Indigenous partners in the first years of our operations. This will ensure we create the social license necessary for major new industrial initiatives, and their input will undoubtedly help to refine and improve our research agenda.

AS: When you look at the Relationship Map we have created as part of BiRNet it is truly extraordinary to see the breadth of engagement from stakeholders at all geographical levels – local, regional, national and international – that have signed on for this initiative. They range from very small SMEs (Small, Medium Enterprises), to major international conglomerates; from entire provinces to small communities; from well-established supply chains to embryonic markets; from individual researchers to global innovation organizations. We will be working with forestry, agriculture and marine, feedstocks, each of which offers unique strengths and challenges. We will be working with stakeholders that represent all parts of the target value chains, from the upstream feedstock and primary manufacturing phases to the downstream production phases, end-use markets and regulators.

MM: What has become clear is that many of the non-traditional partners are – if anything – ahead of the curve with respect to their commitment to the bioeconomy and sustainability. We have been impressed to see that, for example, major traditional chemical companies and big-box retailers have made strong public commitments to introducing bio-based alternatives into the market. They clearly see strong consumer and societal demands for these products, are adapting accordingly and are actively reaching out to join initiatives such as BiRNet.

PA: Do you consider BiRNet an extension, or a progression of initiatives such as FPInnovations? Were models such as those an influence on BiRNet?

WM: FPInnovations, which is one of our key partners, is a leading not-for-profit organization that has similar goals to BiRNet and from whom we have adopted several innovation delivery concepts. BiRNet complements FPInnovations by being focused on research at universities and colleges and training highly-qualified personnel such as graduate students, undergraduate students and post-doctoral students that can be the future leaders of the bioeconomy. We are also building on the success of previous Networks of Centres of Excellence, NSERC Strategic Networks, and other research groups that have delivered over the years. While these groups are a model for our own research, we see BiRNet as a new and exciting addition to the research landscape in Canada.

MM: As noted by Warren, BiRNet certainly benefits from previous investments in the bioeconomy (e.g., BioFuelsNet and ArboraNano), but BiRNet is different from previous networks in the bioeconomy space in that we have deliberately spread our focus over the entire value chain. We recognize that in order to develop the bioeconomy, we need to make breakthroughs in many areas, such as selective extraction and recovery of biomass components, efficient conversion of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin into useful components using enzymatic and chemical catalysis, materials engineering and prototyping to make innovative products from biomass intermediates, and understanding the roles of policy and market drivers in the bioeconomy through socio-economic and techno-economic studies.

AS: FPInnovations will significantly contribute their expertise to this network, especially as technologies and solutions need to be de-risked for the forestry sector. However, BiRNet science spans multiple sectors (forestry, agriculture, marine, etc.) and reaches down entirely new value chains. BiRNet creates an opportunity for multiple industries to connect with a one-stop shop for all bioeconomy-based R&D needs with the support of strong and transparent innovation delivery practices. This is a very attractive proposition for industry.

PA: Is the current international trade environment (dissolution of NAFTA, for example), a concern for the Network? Has it required non-conventional thinking about how to get products to market?

WM: Trade is always an issue, although the recent resolution of USMCA (U.S., Mexico, Canada Agreement) takes some of the uncertainty away going forward. We are very interested in linking into or creating the potential pathways to market and that will be a big part of our research program.

AS: The bioeconomy is a global phenomenon and one of the fastest growing super-sectors in the world. The nature of its value chains, which embrace sustainable use of primary resources, development of advanced manufacturing infrastructure and new consumer market demands across international borders, will create new trade synergies for those economies which commit to future prosperity at all scales related to the quadruple bottom line – economic, environmental, societal and cultural.

In this respect, we truly think the circular bioeconomy is a positively disruptive transition for international trade - one that certainly requires different thinking on market development and supply chains – and the support of a vibrant research innovation ecosystem that works at multiple levels. We are fully engaged, committed and excited about the role of BiRNet – and Canada – in achieving these outcomes.