Despite recent setbacks, a proposed pulse-fractionating plant near Bowden is moving ahead under new management.
The prospect for the facility was thrown into doubt when W.A. Grain & Pulse Solutions was placed into receivership in April. However, prior to that, the Innisfail company, which had spent five years planning the facility and trying to get it off the ground, set up a new entity called More Than Protein Ingredients.
It’s hoped that construction will start this fall as planned, said Kevin McGeough, who was hired as a consultant in November by W.A. Grain owner Chris Chivilo before becoming CEO of More Than Protein Ingredients.
But the company still needs to bring more investors on board, he said.
“Thank God for Zoom — we’ve been on the phone 10 or 15 hours a day raising the money that W.A. Grain was going to commit,” said McGeough. “We have a lot of interest from large organizations, especially on the second equity raise. They have some milestones we have to meet, like the pre-engineering drawings for it, but we have some initial investors right now that we’re just waiting for written confirmation on.”
Finding investors has been a challenge for the project since Day 1, he added.
“The capital expenses are very high. We’re a small plant, but we’re close to $100 million (to build it),” said McGeough, adding investors aren’t as familiar with this up-and-coming sector as they are with more established ones.
“There’s not a lot of knowledge about it, so there’s a lot of education that needs to happen, especially for people who aren’t in the industry. That takes time.”
As a result, most of the discussions have been with investors from outside of Canada.
“There’s a huge interest in this market from foreign investors, both out of Europe and out of the U.S. They see the value of the protein chain,” he said. “They’re interested in us because in Canada, there’s not a lot of protein extraction and this is one of the few opportunities they have to get in on the ground.”
And while McGeough is actively trying to attract local investors, he’s not having much luck so far.
“One of our challenges might be to maintain Canadian ownership,” he said. “We’re going through that right now — do we get these investments from foreigners or do we work on trying to maintain Canadian ownership?”
The next phase of fractionation
Assuming the needed funding is raised, the plant should be operational by 2023, and able to extract protein, starch, and fibre from 35,000 tonnes of yellow peas annually.
But McGeough is also looking at the next phase of fractionation.
“We’re already talking about the next generation of protein and plant isolates,” he said. “In our discussions over the last six months, we’re seeing a transition from pure protein, starch, and fibre to protein, starch, and fibre that have high functionality.
“So not only will we be extracting protein, starch, and fibre isolates, we’ll also have an R&D component that will allow us to bring other crops online. We’ll be able to work with the crops of the future.”
Crops such as sesame seeds, hemp, lupins, and chickpeas have different sensory and health traits that make them attractive for different products, he said. Hemp, for instance, contains an amino acid used in pharmaceuticals, and those kinds of novel uses are what’s driving this trend toward improved functionality.
That’s where the gap in the market is right now, McGeough added. Typically, yellow peas will be shipped from Canada to China, where they extract the starch and then ship the protein and the fibre back to North America.
“Our products are going halfway around the world and then coming back to manufacturers in North America,” he said. “But what we’re hearing from customers is that the protein that’s coming from China doesn’t have the consistency and it doesn’t meet their functionality needs.
“So that R&D component is highly customer driven. It’s the customers who are pushing us to develop more functionality in our product.”
Those processes are still being fine-tuned, but More Than Protein Ingredients has partnered with SiccaDania, a Danish equipment and technology manufacturer, on a ‘turnkey solution’ for the new plant.
“We sought them out to make a plant that will make sure we’re in production in 2023,” said McGeough.
“We talked to a lot of European suppliers that are in this area, and we liked SiccaDania because it has a plant that’s just coming online that it built from start to finish in terms of supplying equipment for it. It’s working — and it’s on time and on budget.”
Local support needed
This will be SiccaDania’s first project in Canada, and the company has opened an office in Calgary in anticipation that the plant protein-processing sector on the Prairies will continue to grow.
“When you look across the Prairies, there’s a huge demand for it,” said McGeough. “That’s being driven by the shortage of protein out there, and it’s increasing really rapidly.
“Our production — which won’t be ready for basically two years — is already all committed. We already have those products sold. That’s how high the demand is.”
Alberta has everything it needs to be a big player in this emerging industry — a large land base, high-quality crops, R&D and manufacturing capacity, and a skilled labour force, he said.
“One of the reasons SiccaDania came here is because Alberta has a large source of technical people in the oil and gas business who could transfer those skills to the food business,” said McGeough.
“There’s a lot of similarities in terms of the processes, so there’s an opportunity there as well.”
Beyond that, there’s a ready customer base here in the province, he added.
“Most of the customers we’re talking with right now are actually in Alberta,” said McGeough. “It would be a closed loop — using Alberta crops to make Alberta products that will go into Alberta grocery stores.”
But in order to capitalize on this opportunity, More Than Protein Ingredients will need more local support, including from the provincial government, he said.
“It would be great for the provincial government to recognize the potential,” said McGeough. “The market is there. We just need some support to get into it.
“To me, it’s like when we developed the oil and gas sector here — there was intense development that went on, and even though we have extremely low prices and an unstable market, the industry is still surviving.”
Both the Manitoba and Saskatchewan governments have invested in plant protein processing and attracted multimillion-dollar plants to their provinces. The return for Alberta would be “very large” if it were to follow suit, but the opportunity won’t last forever, he said.
“If government wants to participate in this, the window is fairly short, and the opportunity for Alberta to get in is basically now,” said McGeough. “The window won’t be open long.”