Plant protein supercluster makes cut for federal funding

(Video screengrab from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada via YouTube)

At the table with artificial intelligence, big data, advanced manufacturing and ocean-based energy, Prairie pulse, oilseed and cereal crops are in for a share of federal support to spur innovation in Canada.

Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains on Thursday announced Protein Industries Canada (PIC) as one of five “superclusters” which will receive a piece of a five-year, $950 million federal funding commitment from the Innovation Superclusters Program.

PIC’s share of the federal support isn’t yet finalized — spokespeople for the group see an amount somewhere between $150 million and $200 million — but they expect it to supplement roughly $400 million in support the group has already secured from its members in cash, in-kind commitments and venture capital.

Over the next six weeks, PIC acting president Ron Styles said in a release, the group will work with the federal ISED department to “finalize a funding agreement that together with our proposal will form the framework for implementation going forward.”

PIC, which bills itself as a “pan-Prairie” industry-led alliance of over 120 private-sector companies, schools and other stakeholders across the West and elsewhere, is focused on “fully developing the potential of plant-based proteins from crops such as canola, pulses, grains, hemp and flax.”

“This has huge implications for the western Canadian economy,” PIC chairman Frank Hart said Thursday. “Farmers, service companies, value-added processors, academic institutions, consumers and, through spinoff benefits, everyone on the Prairies and throughout Canada will stand to benefit.”

PIC’s goal, the government said, is to use plant genomics and novel processing technology to increase the value of the crops “coveted” in high-growth foreign markets such as China and India — and to feed demand in North America and Europe for plant-based meat alternatives and new food products.

From the farmer’s perspective, PIC board member Ray Bouchard, of Manitoba’s Enns Bros., sees gains if Canada can become recognized as a plant protein leader — in terms of expanded domestic and export markets, increased crop processing, increased income from crops grown and increases in sustainable productivity.

PIC has laid out four pillars for its efforts over the next five years, including crop breeding, crop production, value-added processing and export development. Shares of funding will be allocated to each pillar, though not necessarily equally, said Hart, the chief risk officer for Regina-based Greystone Managed Investments.

The cluster doesn’t plan to focus strictly on crops which have the most visible protein profiles, such as pulses, Hart said, noting “a lot of ‘hidden’ protein” in crops such as canola.

For example, he said, much of the protein in canola seed remains in the meal and goes to livestock feed, but if it’s possible to separate the seed’s hull from its contents, there may be ways to extract more of its protein for food use.

Across PIC’s four pillars, it’s expected that new operations and facilities will need to be set up to develop new technologies, including software to handle the data required on the crop production side.

Immediate tasks at hand include setting up a headquarters for PIC, along with offices across the Prairie region, Bouchard said Thursday. As a “convening” organization, he said Thursday, “we need boots on the ground in all three (provincial) jurisdictions.”

Bouchard came to the group from the Manitoba-based EMILI (Enterprise Machine Intelligence and Learning Initiative) supercluster proposal that merged last November into PIC, ahead of the Saskatchewan-based group’s second-phase application to the Innovation Superclusters Program.

Once an agreement is in place for the federal contribution, he said, “I think we’ll start seeing projects funded by the fall.”

For Prairie residents, Bouchard and Hart said, the PIC projects may eventually lead to new employment opportunities across the region as facilities such as pulse fractionation plants are built close to their crop base — and for consumers generally, the initiative is expected to ultimately lead to “lots of interesting food choices.”

Commercial activity

Beyond the 120-odd PIC- and EMILI-affiliated companies and organizations, Bouchard said the supercluster also plans to foster collaborations including companies and groups which weren’t in on its initial bid.

PIC players so far include the Universities of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta, British Columbia, Regina, Lethbridge, Guelph, Toronto and Ottawa; companies such as ADM, Canadian National Railway, Cargill, DowDuPont, G3 Canada, Mosaic Co., Parmalat and Richardson International; and various national and provincial crop commodity groups and federal, provincial and municipal agencies.

Looking beyond the five-year federal funding commitment, Bouchard said, the PIC board hopes that within three years it will have its plan in place for years 5 to 10, to fund and maintain these collaborations.

The federal supercluster initiative was launched last year as a challenge to Canadian businesses “of all sizes” to collaborate with institutions on “bold and ambitious strategies that would transform regional economies and develop job-creating superclusters of innovation, like Silicon Valley.”

From an industry perspective, Bouchard said, the supercluster model “has really kind of forced a lot of dialogue” between various stakeholders, of various sizes, as to how they can all benefit.

Furthermore, he said, where research clusters have mainly operated at the university level, the government has moved to make the supercluster model business-led, working in tandem with schools and research agencies, which “may change the way we partner going forward.”

Once it made the federal government’s shortlist of nine supercluster proposals, the combined PIC and EMILI group was “cautiously optimistic” that it would make the final cut, Bouchard said.

Ottawa, he noted, has been looking for ways to implement the recommendations of the Barton report released in February by the government’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth. That report pegged agriculture as a key sector with substantial growth potential.

PIC cites a study estimating its work could generate over $700 million in new commercial activity and “billions” in incremental gross domestic product over the next 10 years, creating about 4,700 new jobs.

Among the nine finalists, Canada’s ag sector was also represented by the Smart Agri-Food Supercluster (SASC), an Alberta-based, “pan-Canadian” group focused on sustainable innovations in food production. — Network

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