“In terms of opportunities, I strongly believe that that these are endless. We basically don’t have a choice anymore. Either we change our production paradigms and transform the industry form its roots; or we will leave a sick planet to the next generations.”
With huge quantities of diverse feedstocks ranging from crops, trees, and marine life to microorganisms and waste material, world class research institutions and universities and a growing start-up culture, Canada is fast emerging as a global leader in the bio-based economy. And today we focus on one of its emerging stars, the Montreal based Celluforce. Our Editor Luke Upton, spoke to Antoine Charbonneau, their VP Business Development, to talk industry challenges, differences between Canada and the USA, what needs to happen for bio-based to grow and of course his favourite product!
Luke Upton (LU): Thanks for the time today, for those who haven’t heard of CelluForce, can you give me a description of what it is that the company does?
Antoine Charbonneau (AC): No problem at all. CelluForce is the world leader in the commercial production of Cellulose Nano Crystals (CNC). These nano-particles are extracted from cellulose, which is, the main structural building block of trees. At Celluforce, we specialize in the extraction of these nanocrystals form renewable sourced cellulose, operating the world’s largest CNC plant, which can produce 300 tonnes of high quality material per year. Our CNC is used in many industrial applications; not only as reinforcing agents but also for the suspension of other materials, as barrier to gases in, for example, packaging applications; even as defogging agents.
LU: What about your role there, can you tell me more about that?
AC: As vice president of business development, my role is to accelerate the industrial deployment of Cellulose Nano Crystals. This is easier said than done: the challenge lies mostly in the fact that we have not uncovered all the potential application of CNC, and we are constantly discovering new applications.
LU: What do you most enjoy about being involved in the bio-based/sustainable industry?
AC: I have always been environmentally conscious. Ultimately, if your passion is business development and you are an eco-minded person, you don’t have many choices but to work in the sustainable industry. Everyday, I feel that I am contributing in some way to tackle one of our generation’s most significant challenge: pollution. In addition, I have a young daughter, and another one is on the way, and I want them to grow in a healthy environment, enjoying nature and, playing, and using eco-friendly products and technologies containing CNC.
LU: What is the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced?
AC: Working for a materials start-up is quite a challenging. The technology adoption cycles are quite long, and of course, financing is always a concern. In a past life, I worked for a start-up that had a business model and an execution strategy that was not as well designed as those of CelluForce, and the company endured many years of hardship.
LU: What advice would you give someone looking to get started in the bio-based industry?
AC: Before getting started in the bio-based industry, you must be sure that the product or solution you are working to develop and commercialize is going to address a customer need. It is relatively easy to launch a bio-product that can perform half as well as the petro-based products that are already in the marketplace, but the challenge is to achieve the same or better performance while also being ‘’green’’. Close collaboration with stakeholders in the supply chain is critical, to find opportunities, and to address all requirements, both explicit and implicit.
LU: What are the major challenges that the bio-based industry faces, as you see them? And the opportunities?
AC: In terms of challenges, I would say that bio-based technologies take more time to develop than their conventional chemical counterparts. This is mainly because bio-based technologies and products must deliver functionalities thorough their life cycle. They must respond to all the consumer’s needs during their ‘’useful stage’’ while at the same time presenting environmental benefits when disposed of.
Take the coffee-shop example; when we go to a coffee-shop we all expect the disposable coffee mug we are given to not burn our fingers, while at the same time maintaining our beverage hot. We also expect it not to affect our coffee’s taste, to keep the liquid in place without leaks for long periods of time and, mainly, to be cheap and disposable. These are the product’s ‘’useful stage’’ requirements, that the industry has been trying to fulfill for the past decades. Green products must, however, also deliver ‘’eco functionalities’’ when the products are no longer in use. Whether it is through recycling or through bio-degradation, green products must become part of the cycle again.
In terms of opportunities, I strongly believe that that these are endless. We basically don’t have a choice anymore. Either we change our production paradigms and transform the industry form its roots; or we will leave a sick planet to the next generations.
LU: What do you think will be the biggest changes to come to the bio-based/sustainable industry in the future?
AC: I believe that increased legislation by governments will be a strong driver to the sustainable industry. Environmentally conscious consumers have put pressure on producers, but so far, in my opinion, only legislative support by governments have forced industry-wide changes.
LU: You’ve worked in Canada your whole career, but is there anything that it other countries are doing that Canada could learn from? And vice versa, what is Canada doing really well?
AC: I worked in the US for part of my career, but the paradigm there is similar to that of Canada! I think that Canada would benefit from developing close collaboration ties with the European Union. In the last decade, both EU citizens and authorities have come to realize that everything is interconnected. If there is pollution in a river in France, the waste will eventually reach Germany, Switzerland and so on. Thus, they have come together to draw a clear, common objective to tackle the waste management problem in their continent; and they are investing plenty of resources towards reaching this common goal!
Canada is on the right track, but we will certainly be behind the EU in terms of innovation if we don’t act fast enough to actively engage in the bio-economy. Furthermore, as shown by the EU, this change must not only be industry driven, but also regulatory and government-driven.
LU: Apart from your own, what is your favourite bio-based product/service and why?
AC: This is a tough question! I’d say red wine, for the antioxidants!
LU: Ha! It’s one of my favourites too. Thanks for the time, and good luck for the upcoming projects.
Read the last week's 5 minutes with… Simon Karlik, director at Cheeki.
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