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John Bissell
CEO - Origin Materials
Part of the Spotlight on the Bioeconomy

Bio-Materials: An opportunity for Canada’s industries

Takeaways

  1. Canada’s governmental institutions, academia and private sector have created an open and productive business environment for investment.
  2. The bioeconomy can leverage the strength of Canada’s strongholds in wood products and agriculture, among other sectors.
  3. The by-products of multiple Canadian industries – such as wood products from forestry, and carbohydrates from corn, wheat straw and other agricultural waste – represent potential feedstocks for the bioeconomy, should their supply chains be strengthened.

Action

In order to create an ecosystem in which Canada’s bioeconomy flourishes, we need to remove hurdles that hinder the commercialization of technology, while not pushing premature tech deployment.


Why are you focused on materials and how do they fit into the bioeconomy?

The need for lower carbon materials was our driver. In our view, trying to make exactly the same materials with a lower carbon footprint is probably not the right way to go. The material set that the world has right now exists because it was easy to make, relatively speaking, from petroleum. So, why would one want to compete directly with materials that were easy to make from petroleum if one could instead make materials that are easy to make from bio-waste feedstock?

“The goal is to ultimately make materials that have performance advantages and are easy to make from bio-waste materials.”

So, we started with bio-polyethylene terephthalate (bio-PET) because we know that we could get it to the market at an appropriate price. We didn’t have to do any market development; we could focus on the technology, and then use the existing petro infrastructure to bring it to market. The expectation or the goal is to ultimately make materials that have performance advantages and are easy to make from bio-waste materials. The reason we started with bio-PET was because we see it as a mechanism to drive scale.


What made you choose Canada for your first plant? What advantages does being present in Canada offer you at this stage?

We wanted to build a demonstration-scale plant that would allow us to bring our technology, which has been vetted at the pilot scale, to a much larger scale. That’s a big step toward full commercial scale. And the plant needed to be in North America. Most of our team is distributed across North America and we wanted to have relatively easy access to the site. We also did not want to compound the difficulty of starting the first plant with a bunch of other difficulties like operating in a new business environment, not being able to manage the cultural environment, or others.

“For us, Canada is almost a hallmark of business; the stability and predictability of the Canadian business environment are its best features.”

We were looking for a really good site that has a lot of existing infrastructure available, so you do not have to retrain an entire workforce. We found a confluence of these factors in our site in Sarnia. There are certainly larger sites in North America similar to Sarnia, but for our size Sarnia came out quite clearly as one of the best sites to do that.

Canada was also an obvious choice for us since our technology takes advantage of natural resources Canada has an abundance of like wood,crops and agricultural residues. Our technology creates a large value uplift for those products. There is also interesting potential for certain of our applications in development to “close the loop” for Canada’s forestry industry, where the products are used by the same companies contributing feedstock.

“We underestimated the cultural differences between Canadians and Americans, not because the differences are large but because we presumed that the differences were actually negligible or non-existent.”

We’re also very interested in working with First Nations groups in Canada. We believe in holistic outreach to First Nations groups focused on three key areas: training, which includes jobs and Origin’s Lambton College scholarship program; partnerships, including incubating and contracting with First Nations businesses like wood supply, delivery, and processing; and investment to create lasting and deep alignments of interest.


What do you think Canada could do to improve its business and bioeconomy ecosystem?

Canada has been great to work with. Our experience is that the Canadian governments, the provincial, the federal and the local, have all been quite well organized. The academic community has been wonderful; we have had exceptional relationships with it, all of which have been helpful. From the vocational colleges all the way up to the research universities, it has been fantastic and very productive, likewise with many of the other businesses. If there were a trajectory for Canada to continue to improve, it would essentially be following along that exact same line. We were surprised by the quality of the governmental institutions and the way that they interact with business. For us, Canada is almost a hallmark of business; the stability and predictability of the Canadian business environment are its best features.

“Things that cause technology to be commercialized prematurely are more damaging to technological development than things that just prevent it from being unduly penalized.”

It has been interesting for us setting up a team in Canada. We underestimated the cultural differences between Canadians and Americans, not because the differences are large but because we presumed that the differences were actually negligible or non-existent. I do not think by any stretch of the imagination that these differences are a negative for Canada but a lot of companies that are going into Canada do not necessarily expect them.

Bioindustrial Innovation Canada (BIC) is doing a lot of work on the cusp of commercial activity. Since the bioeconomy is highly dependent on technological innovation, we should be building an ecosystem in which technology can flourish. However, the goal is to remove hurdles to the commercialization of the technology but not to push the technology. Things that cause technology to be commercialized prematurely are more damaging to technological development than things that just prevent it from being unduly penalized. Unfortunately, that is nice in the abstract but difficult to convert or operationalize. You do see it in Silicon Valley as the ecosystem has grown but it is hard to replicate – not impossible but difficult.


Beyond the forestry industry, do you see other untapped opportunities for the bioeconomy, with respect to other Canadian industries?

Absolutely. We start our process with woodchips specifically because of the logistics and aggregation of the collection of the woodchips. We would rather not develop the supply chain for them since our expertise is in the technological aspects of the manufacturing process. If the supply chain for other carbohydrates such as corn, wheat straw and others become robust and attractive, then we are in.

“If the supply chain for other carbohydrates such as corn, wheat straw and others become robust and attractive, then we are in.”

There are a lot of industries where bio-materials can be applied. Wood products, agriculture and other industries particularly stand out in this regard.


How do you feel about the future of Canada’s bioeconomy?

I am confident but there is some nuance to that optimism. From an opportunity perspective, it is nice to talk about the bioeconomy industry, but in reality, the industry cluster does not have to succeed as a whole to get value from even one of the participants’ success. For example, if Comet ends up doing extraordinarily well but nobody else in the bio-economy sector does, Canada gets just as much benefit as it would if each of them did only marginally well. The companies that are participating in this area do not really rely on each other in order to be successful and provide benefit to Canada.

“There are a lot of industries where bio-materials can be applied. Wood products, agriculture and other industries particularly stand out in this regard.”

It is reasonable to say that bio-materials and bio-fuels can have a material impact on carbon emissions. The question is, which ones will hit and which ones will have that level of success? Success will be driven by the performance of the technology rather than by some sort of mega trend analysis about bio versus other things.

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John Bissell
CEO - Origin Materials

John Bissell is the CEO of Origin Materials. He has extensive expertise in R&D, engineering, business development, chemical engineering, chemical process development, process economic modelling, and all aspects of technological due diligence related to chemicals and materials. He has worked as an R&D Engineer at Ampac Fine Chemicals and as a Researcher at UC Davis.


Origin Materials is a bio-based chemical company with a demonstration-scale plant under development in Sarnia, Ontario. Origin’s proprietary technology replaces petroleum with cheap, renewable feedstocks – including agricultural residue, wood, and wood waste from the agricultural and forestry industries – to make industrial and consumer materials, with an initial focus on PET plastic bottles, packaging, and tires, but with a better cost, performance, and environmental impact profile. Through the NaturALL Bottle Alliance, Origin is working with Danone, Nestle, and PepsiCo with the aim of creating 100% bio-based PET plastic bottles.