Networking to navigating red tape, Alyson Bennett ready to help Alberta’s plant-protein industry grow

Networking to navigating red tape, Alyson Bennett ready to help Alberta’s plant-protein industry grow

By Therese Kehler

Alyson Bennett likes to talk about science and takes pride in being able to break down tough concepts, as if it were a casual conversation over beers at the pub.

In fact, one of the first things Bennett did after moving to Calgary in 2017 was launch a local chapter of the Pint of Science festival, in which scientists do indeed head to pubs, bars and cafes where they can hoist a beverage and talk about their research to interested members of the public.

“It’s super fun,” said Bennett, who brought the idea to Calgary after attending the festival in California. “The idea that you can gather together local business with local researchers is fabulous.”

Helping businesses talk to scientists will play a part in her new job as Alberta’s program specialist for Protein Industries of Canada (PIC).

PIC is one of five superclusters that will share almost $1 billion in federal money to build their industries. Built around the concept of working together, clustering promotes partnerships — even unconventional ones — that can leverage each other’s strengths to drive innovation.

PIC has $153 million to dole out as matching grants over the next four years to projects being pitched by multi-partner consortiums, which will ideally include at least one small- or medium-sized business and a research institution.

One of Bennett’s duties will be to help “matchmake” potential partners.

“More than just helping them learn the process, I can create networking opportunities if they have a need for a certain type of project or idea,” Bennett said. “I help them find other PIC members to communicate with and introduce them so that they can have the opportunity to collaborate.”

Bridging the gap from resource to innovation

Alyson Bennett, program specialist, Protein Industries Canada | Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta (PPAA)With a master’s degree in food science from New Jersey’s Rutgers University, Bennett spent six years working as an applications technology for Evonik Industries, one of the world’s largest specialty chemical companies.

Three of those years were spent in South Africa where she became an expert in silicon dioxide, one of the Earth’s most abundant resources and used in almost everything from tires to toothpaste.

“I was helping the customer figure out their problems, and addressing new product development and opportunities,” Bennett said. Her love of talking about science quickly became one of her biggest assets.

“I believe my communications skills and technical knowledge really have been developed through my work, both in North America and Africa,” she said. “And the diversity of industries that I’ve been involved in has also allowed me to adapt and transition very easily.”

Launched into the fray

Bennett’s ability to adapt quickly is certainly being put to the test.

She joined PIC in May, just weeks after the organization announced a call for project proposals. This first round has $40 million in matching grants available and Bennett was immediately put to work helping Alberta applicants who were working to the June 28 deadline.

Project proposals — formally called Expressions of Interest — should address gaps in the plant-protein ecosystem within four specific areas:

  • The “Create” pillar could involve the likes of plant-breeding technologies to develop novel food ingredients;
  • The “Grow” pillar would look at advancements relating to production of plant-protein crops;
  • The “Make” pillar would look at new or better processing possibilities;
  • The “Sell” pillar would focus on the development of new markets.

Western Canada is already a global leader in high-protein pulse crops, harvesting 6.5-million metric tonnes annually of peas, lentils and chickpeas. But maybe there’s room for improvement, Bennett said, with new technologies such as “robots or drones or various computer algorithms” analyzing soil for optimum growing conditions.

Projects that addressed each of the four pillars were among the proposals that she’d already reviewed.

“It’s still early days but the ones that I do know about I’m very excited about, because they have great impact and potential,” she said.

“The opportunities and the collaboration of clustering are great — but the potential of the outcomes is even greater.”

PIC and pitches

Protein Industries Canada’s first annual general meeting on June 24 featured a keynote from Arlene Dickinson, the Calgary-based businesswoman who became known to Canadians as one of the venture capitalists on the CBC show Dragon’s Den.

Following the meeting, PIC hosted its Project Pitch Day, a Dragon’s Den-like opportunity for members to outline a big idea and to potentially find partners. As Bennett described it, “you come and you can learn and also have opportunities to network.”

A second round of project proposals is to happen in September; it’s not decided at this point how much money will be involved or whether it will also include a Pitch Day, she said.

Either way, Bennett is convinced that current conditions — from the popularity of “Beyond Meat” type foods to the revised Canada Food Guide’s promotion of more plant-based protein on a plate — have created the perfect conditions for the plant-protein industry to grow.

“I don’t think it’s a fad. It’s definitely a transition,” she said. “The way the world is changing, if you market toward a younger audience then plant protein becomes even more important.”

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

Posted June 25, 2019

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Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta