Pierre Lapointe has the white hair and serene attitude of a mature man. But after an hour spent at his office on Boulevard St Jean, Pointe Claire, it is obvious that appearances are deceiving; the CEO of FPInnovations’ is a young wolf.
Keen, energetic, bright and most of all passionate, the overwhelming passion that punctuates his professional pathway has a name: Innovation. No wonder Lapointe has been at the helm of FPInnovations since 2008. He clearly feels like a fish in the sea.
Once we set foot in his office, a baseball bat captures our attention. Lapointe reassures us right away: he has no intention of using it in the instance he doesn’t appreciate some of our questions! Rather, the bat is an example of an innovative wood product, as the Major League of Baseball now uses yellow birch bats, which are stronger than the usual ones made of maple and ash.
In fact, Lapointe’s office is full of these kinds of objects, serving as a constant reminder that innovation in the industry is all around us. Lapointe takes the opportunity to show us some small frames with pretty-colored patterns. “This is a product of iridescence. We can create them during the settling of nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC). These optical properties were discovered during research at McGill University and became a research area in itself when the glass industry started to show interest. NCC opens a way to new applications, as it increases the resistance of certain materials, while helping to reduce the weight of some others.”
A rich track record
A geologist and geophysicist by training, Lapointe has gained strong and diverse experience in the fields of science and research management in the governmental, academic and industrial arenas. He made his mark at the National Institute for Scientific Research (NIRS), where he was scientific director and CEO from 1991-2006. He has set up roughly 30 partnerships with numerous institutions from 15 countries. Just as an example, he created the Laval Biotechnology Development Centre, the Biosciences Centre, the National Centre for Experimental Biology, as well as the Laboratory of Micro and Nanofabrication and the International Laboratory for Ultrafast Laser Radiation Source. Lapointe was involved in the integration of the Armand-Frappier Institute and the Quebec Institute for Research on Culture in 1994, as well as the Armand-Frappier institute and the NIRS in 1998. It is also noteworthy that he succeeded in uniting the scientific, academic and business communities within the City of Biotechnology and Human Health of Metropolitan Montreal, positioning the Laval region as the turntable of worldwide public health research.
Inevitably, such accomplishments earned him widespread recognition and respect from his peers. Lapointe was selected in June 2009 to join the consulting group of the Stratégie québécoise de la recherche et de l’innovation, whose mission is to identify the main directions of the Quebec government in research and innovation. Lapointe was made Officier de l’Ordre des Palmes académiques, an award given by the French Ministère de l’enseignement supérieur et de la recherche for his contribution to the advancement of international research. These titles and responsibilities do not slow him down at all, however; he now chairs several management boards, including the Conference of Rectors and Principals of Quebec Universities (CREPUQ) and the Computer Centre of Montreal (CRIM). For good measure, Lapointe is also a member of the Table du haut savoir of Montreal International as well the Quebec University’s Board of Governors!
The NCC journey
It is no coincidence that Lapointe now heads FPInnovations. Being at the heart of paper and forestry research many years, the centre has lived through its own industrial revolution, questioning both its foundation and practices. In this context, Lapointe was very timely! "This industry adopted conservative behaviors for several years, so we had to change the mentality first," he notes. "We had to move back to the essentials, to the basics, to the composition of our main tool; wood."
This shift in thinking has not only led to a new understanding of what makes up the cells of a tree, but has also helped the industry identify promising new properties. "Since the creation of the joint venture with Domtar in July 2010, interest in NCC has increased significantly,” Lapointe highlights. “We are getting requests from companies interested in NCC applications for their products until the plant, adjacent to the Domtar paper mill in Windsor, Eastern Townships, is completed.” The plant will be able to produce one ton/day of NCC. In less than three years, production increased from a few grams per day, to a ton per day. The $32 million plant (the total project will cost $40.8 million over 4 years) should be completed in September of this year and the first ton of NCC should be produced in November.
What exactly is nanocrystalline cellulose? At the nanoscale (13 0 nm), this is what makes up the crystalline region of microfibrils. This means that a tree is composed of cells whose walls are made of cellulose fibre. These fibres are further divided into fibrils, themselves composed of microfibrils. The crystalline region of these microfibrils is the actual source of cellulose. "Our goal is to control the extraction at different macro, micro and nano stages, says Lapointe. The main cost driver in this process is related to the extraction of the NCC. Research allows us to offer this cellulose in the form of fibre, liquid or gel. "
The applications are numerous and new ones are regularly discovered: polymers, textiles, packaging, paints, varnishes, cosmetics, coatings, conductive paper, magnetic or bioactive ... and the list goes on. Lapointe notes one example among many: corks. "In Europe it becomes more and more difficult to source cork supplies that are needed for the confection of the roughly 16 different bottle closures used by the wine market. We offered to develop a bottle closure made from cellulose gel. Why? Around the world, 3.5 billion litres of wine are consumed annually. This represents 1.4 billion corks! Just think about the income prospects… "
A diversified business portfolio
Smart paper, more rigid cardboard, improved pulp properties - FPInnovations’ work definitely has a major impact on the production of paper, but that’s not where it ends. One of FPInnovations’ strengths is its flexibility in allowing the company to be active in the entire spectrum of forest products and related research. To do this, the organization relies on high-level partnerships developed at the university level, what FPInnovations refers to as ‘innovation networks.’ These include renowned relationships such as that shared by Laval, Polytechnique, McGill, Toronto, UNB and UBC; all institutions that are involved in several, specific research areas, which represent centres of excellence in the areas of value chain optimization, innovative wood products and manufacturing systems, Sentinel Bioactive Paper, ecological fibre, biomass conversion, biomaterials and biochemical products, ArboraNano RCE-Enterprise and the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre of The Canadian Forest Service.
To the multiplicity of research subjects, FPInnovations now adds a window to non-traditional activities, with a focus on problem solving and the improvement of products or activities. "Sometimes certain activities seem not worth pursuing, but that is never really the case. When discovering new applications for wood fibre, we secure the sustainability of the industry," reminds Lapointe.
FPInnovations places particular emphasis on wood construction, as demonstrated by the recent publication of a major reference book on cross-laminated structures - the Cross-laminated Timber Handbook. The goal is to revive the use of wood for high, non-residential structures, an area that represents a $50 billion market in North America. "It’s all about the interconnection of these prefabricated panels and the standardized accuracy they offer - not to mention their ability to withstand seismic movements. Our challenge is to create a must-use product for architects,” says Lapointe. The Richmond Olympic Oval, a world-class sports centre located in Richmond, BC, is a striking example of the use of laminated wood structures, with an avant-garde design that takes a spectator’s breath away.
When it comes to forest harvesting activities, FPInnovations can participate as much in the engineering of forest roads as in a study on the fuel consumption of logging trucks. New hybrid trucks, devices for real-time topography reproduction of the surrounding terrain (while truck driving), auto-pressured tires system – FPInnovations can handle it all. No less than 120 technologies and practices were tested for the transportation industry. "We have to know that these improvements for the forestry industry can be transposed in other sectors of transport. Maybe our studies on the condition of forest roads will some day help better maintain our rural and urban road network, "says Lapointe.
Finally, when we ask Pierre Lapointe about what the future holds for FPInnovations, he leaves us with the distinct impression the adventure just begun (this is the title of a presentation on the NCC that he made last February at the NanoQuébec general meeting). He aims for nothing less than becoming the best in the world.
"I would say that what is good for FPInnovations will be good for the industry. The organization has taken the turn towards new products and new applications, and this was done after going through a particularly demanding process of improvement and cost reduction. Our team of extraordinary employees followed this turn, and this is due to a business philosophy based on solid facts. The effects of our work are tangible, and ultimately, the whole forest industry innovates and transforms through FPInnovations.”