Flour to face creams: ‘Biorefinery’ helps entrepreneurs grow their business

Flour to face creams: ‘Biorefinery’ helps entrepreneurs grow their business

Bio-Processing Innovation Centre taps potential in Mother Nature’s offerings

By Therese Kehler

Tall stalks of dried hemp lean up against a wall, surrounded by bags of what appear to be twigs and dust.

It doesn’t look like much to us but to some Alberta entrepreneurs, these stalks and bags represent potential. They could become a pigment, a flavour, an oil or a protein. They could used to make a gluten-free flour or a face cream, mattress  material or building material. “The sky’s the limit,” says David Fielder. “It’s really the entrepreneurs and people thinking a little bit outside the box.”

David Fielder at the BPIC

David Fielder at the Bio-Processing Innovation Centre / Photos by Therese Kehler

Some of those entrepreneurs are working with Fielder and the dozen people on his team at the Alberta-government-run Bio-Processing Innovation Centre (BPIC), where they can access expertise and equipment to test their ideas, perfect their formulations and get their products to market.

BPIC, part of the Alberta Agriculture and Forestry ministry, had been based out of the University of Alberta’s Agri-Food Discovery Place until moving a few years ago to a 10,000-square-foot standalone facility in southeast Edmonton.  It’s practically a twin operation to the Food Processing Development Centre in Leduc. However, where the FPDC deals only with food, BPIC works with food as well as neutraceuticals, personal care products, essential oils, protein powders, biomaterials and more.

“Mother Nature does have the ability to produce quite a wide range of bio-components,” says Fielder, a botanical chemist and senior scientist at Alberta Agriculture.

“We’ve had companies that work on things like biodegradable solutions to be put on roads for deicing. We’ve had companies that have chicken manure and want to convert that to a liquid fertilizer that can be used in greenhouses.”

Clients can buy services ranging from benchtop development to full-scale production, costing anywhere from $200 a day to upwards of $1,200. Along the way, BPIC’s scientists, engineers and advisers are imparting knowledge—choosing and using equipment, finding local partners, navigating Health Canada safety rules—that will help the entrepreneurs eventually set up their own commercial enterprises.

‘We’re a success story’

Eveline Charles, the Edmonton entrepreneur behind a successful chain of salons and spas, turned to the centre in 2016 when she launched EC Labs, which creates private label cosmetics, personal care products and hand sanitizer.

At the time, recalls EC Labs president Lina Heath, the Eveline Charles company had been making products using labs located in the United States, France, Italy and elsewhere in Canada. But they wanted to have more control over quantities, cash flow, the manufacturing process and product development.

“We are the prototype that they intended to develop,” Heath says about the decision to use BPIC’s services. “I can say with confidence is that we’re a success story.”

Over the course of three years, EC Labs went from being an occasional user of BPIC’s benchtop development services to becoming a client for months on end.

That got them access to R&D equipment and, more importantly, to the scientific expertise of Fielder and others on the team. “There isn’t a school in Canada that specializes in cosmetic or personal care product manufacturing,” says Heath. “The only way to build a formulator in Canada is through mentorship.”

Economies of scale

Products created at the Bio-Processing Innovation Centre BPIC is like a biorefinery, with a stated goal to use fractionation processes to break materials down into smaller, usable components.

Fielder draws an analogy to a pyramid: food ingredients that need very little refining are on the bottom, highly refined concentrates used in botanical drugs and pharmaceuticals are at the top, and extracts used in cosmetics and natural health products fall in between.

“As you move your way up, the volume decreases but the value goes up significantly,” he says. “That’s the M.O. for our whole business here.”

Ideally, byproducts that would normally be considered as waste would themselves be turned into another ingredient for a different product. Fielder considers a byproduct an opportunity.

“For instance, you could extract a certain component for food but there’s still enough protein left in the waste material … that you could still dry and pellitize it and sell it as animal feed. So you’ve sort of upvalued it and now you’ve got two ingredients from a single product.”

Welcome to the kitchen

Flas coasters made at the Bio-Processing Innovation Centre Display cases in BPIC’s foyer show off an astonishing range of products that have come out of the facility: potting mix, cat litter, creams to smooth cellulite, lotions to soothe feet, protein powders, coasters made with flax, a skateboard made with hemp.

Creating high-value, small-quantity ingredients—and then turning them into products for market—takes specialized equipment. Fielder has carefully outfitted the centre’s research and production labs to ensure entrepreneurs can get their hands on the tools they need.

An extruder allows different types of biomaterials—hemp, flax, forestry waste—to be mixed with plastics to create new materials. A commercial hemp decortication plant, located in Nisku, separates fibre from the hurd in a hemp stalk. Evaporation equipment and steam distillers are able to isolate essential oils. A variety of dryers—spray, freeze and membrane filtration—can make easy-to-handle powder out of a concentrated liquid. There’s a cold press and wax melter.

The natural products and wet chemistry area, which Fielder jokingly calls “the kitchen,” houses incubators, vessels that range from big kitchen pots to a 2,000-litre vat, bottle fillers, labellers, even an oven to heat-shrink tamper-proof wrappers.

Hemp products at BPICFor small-scale entrepreneurs—ones who have been using a pail to mix and funnel to pour—using commercial standard equipment is eye-opening.  An automated filler, for example, costs about $3,000 but that expense might seem manageable when compared with the time spent filling bottles by hand, Fielder says.

Clients are actively involved in all parts of the process but they’re never turned loose on their own, Fielder says. BPIC staff supervise production days and teach clients how to properly use the equipment, while a quality control co-ordinator ensures that the finished product meets market standards.

“A lot of our companies are just people that are making products in their own home or selling to a farmers’ market and then they want to get to the next stage—but how do you do that?” he says, citing variables like quality management systems and good manufacturing practices.

“We provide all of that training here, in terms of how to how to scale up.”

Over at EC Labs, Heath says BPIC helped the new company build up to its independence at a pace that was financially comfortable.

The centre’s team connected EC Labs with various grant programs while BPIC’s Health Canada site licence to produce natural health products helped ensure the company met regulatory protocols. Manufacturing days allowed EC Labs to get its products created, bottled and shipped to market.

Today, EC Labs has 10 full-time staff, revenues that are growing year over year, and a business mandate to source locally whenever possible.

“This is the specific reason they launched this program … building a business and creating more jobs and creating diversity in the province of Alberta,” Heath says.

“I don’t know how we would have started without the support that we received from them.”

Therese Kehler is a freelance writer and editor based in Edmonton.

Posted Nov. 12, 2020

Update: David Fielder spoke at PPAA webinar Plant Protein 101 in November 2020. You can watch the video here

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