A government-backed bid to turn Western Canada into a plant protein superpower is nearing the end of its startup phase and will launch this spring.
“We’re hoping to be open for business and ready to launch a call for proposals in April,” said Bill Greuel, CEO of Protein Industries Canada.
The federal government is contributing $150 million in a bid to create a plant protein ‘supercluster’ on the Prairies — a concentration of industries akin to an ag version of Silicon Valley (which started as a centre for computer chip technology).
Since signing a formal contribution agreement with Ottawa in November, the organization has been doing “all the back-end work of starting up a new organization,” said Greuel, a former assistant deputy ag minister in Saskatchewan who was hired in October. Along with hiring staff, that includes things such as developing its data management and intellectual property management strategies, along with an evaluation process for proposals.
The organization has also struck an agreement with three provincial partners — the newly formed Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta; Ag-West Bio in Saskatchewan; and Bioscience Association Manitoba.
“Our three agencies will be their boots on the ground and their eyes on the marketplace,” said Dennis McKnight, Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta CEO.
To be eligible for backing from the supercluster, companies will have to put up at least half the money. Four “pillars” have been identified as areas for investment, but they cover a very wide range of activities: improving protein quality and yield; improving sustainable agriculture production and information technology; increasing processing technology; and enhancing marketing and commercialization.
But value-added processing is the brass ring.
While there has been a major investment in canola crushing — about 10 million tonnes are crushed on the Prairies each year — about 85 per cent of pulses and 90 per cent of canola are exported as raw commodities.
“For the last 20 years, there has been all this discussion at a political level about how we have to do more processing on the Prairies,” said McKnight. “Well, that hasn’t happened. Whatever was being tried never really worked.”
But technological advancements have made it easier to extract different elements for food ingredients, pet food, and even personal-care products such as makeup or sunscreen. Pulse fractionation — a relatively new technology that separates seeds into protein, fibre, and starch — is just one example of that.
“Once it’s fractionated, the fractions can be sent around the world more easily,” said McKnight.
“We’re no longer taking the raw commodity and sending it to one location. All of a sudden, we can have it going to multiple locations. It made sense at that point to move the processing to where the commodities are.”
On its website, the Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta (which is chaired by Sylvan Lake producer Allison Ammeter, who is also Pulse Canada chair) highlights Botaneco Inc. as an example of what can be done.
The oilseed processor set up shop in Calgary five years ago.
“We want to be close to the crops,” said James Szarko, Botaneco CEO. “We think it’s really important that our research and development and our manufacturing team is close to where the crop production is.”
The company removes oil from canola, hemp, sunflower, and safflower seeds for use in aquaculture, animal feed, and personal-care products. All but the safflower seeds are sourced from the Prairies.
“Those seeds work incredibly well through our novel manufacturing process,” said Szarko. “The way we process our seeds is we open the seeds up in a very unique way that keeps everything intact. We’ve reimagined how you process these seeds.”
The oil in a seed is contained in small little ‘vessels’ called oleosomes, and when kept intact, they have more functional properties for use in processed foods and personal-care products.
“We end up keeping the oleosome the way nature made it, and nature made it with unique properties that are typically destroyed in traditional manufacturing,” said Szarko. “As a result of that, we can put it in personal-care products and the next development of food, and we end up with really clean-labelled products that no longer include synthetics.”
That makes these oilseeds more valuable, he added.
“We’re focused on the whole seed — getting value out of every piece of the seed at a high-value basis. So all of a sudden, we turn what would be 80 or 90 cents a kilo to $5 to $25 a kilo,” he said. “We end up with a value proposition that’s at least five times the potential revenue from one little oilseed.
“We see really big potential from these small seeds.”
Botaneco’s process also doesn’t denature proteins, which reduces them to feed quality.
The company initially focused on the fast-growing aquaculture sector but the range of uses for ingredients is rapidly expanding, said Szarko.
“This whole ecosystem is really starting to take off in a way that is so productive and interesting to see,” he said. “This is the future. It’s not a trend — it’s a growing industry.”
Botaneco employs about 35 people at its Calgary manufacturing facility and a sales office in New Jersey, and processes about 2,000 tonnes of seed annually. It is planning to build a facility able to process 50,000 tonnes and that could be scaled up to 300,000 tonnes. And once that facility is scaled up, Szarko expects it will be able to generate around $25 million in revenue in the personal-care industry alone.
“We anticipate that we’ll start to move into the food area in 2019 or 2020,” he said. “We believe that once we scale, there will be a ready market for these proteins.”
Botaneco has been involved in the supercluster since its early stages as a novel processor — one of the “biggest missing links” identified by Protein Industries Canada.
“That’s where we fit into the puzzle,” said Szarko. “As we start to see the increase in these oilseeds being planted, we’re going to see technologies like ours starting to take a very dominant place in the marketplace.
“We’re really optimistic about what’s going to happen in these Prairie provinces with all these initiatives.”
So is McKnight.
“There’s a huge wave coming, and we happen to be in the right place at the right time,” he said.