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On the cutting edge

By Matt O’Grady | June 27, 2014
On the cutting edge
Pierre Lapointe

When Pierre Lapointe was asked to take the helm of FPInnovations in late 2008, the forestry sector was in crisis. The organization was only a year old, born as a result of four distinct industry-based research institutes having merged in 2007, their individual memberships unwilling and unable to support all four.

But then the financial meltdown of 2008-09 hit, and the very future of forestry in Canada was in doubt. “The RBC guys came into my office for six months to supervise us because the financial situation was so difficult. We had fun,” recalls the President and CEO of FPInnovations, with a chuckle.

That was then; this is now. Today, Montreal-based FPInnovations is one of the world’s leading research organizations in the natural resources sector, advising similar groups around the world and partnering with industry giants such as Domtar Corporation, Kruger Inc. and West Fraser Timber Co. Ltd. to produce the eco-friendly materials of the future. The organization is introducing advanced forest products and forestry technologies to whole new markets, including the mining and agricultural sectors.

“The difference between five years ago and today? Government ministers and industry leaders engage us directly when looking to the future of the sector,” says Lapointe, a trained geologist. “They understand and appreciate the value and expertise we bring to the table and our role as a catalyst for innovative ideas throughout the sector.”

The key to FPInnovations’ success lies in its name – innovation – and Lapointe’s commitment to lead an innovative organization that’s not about preserving the status quo but embracing and driving change.

“The innovation is not only doing cost reduction and process improvement, but doing new products and new processes,” he explains. “We need to find new applications for the wood fibre resource to get to the next level. Making two-by-fours is really easy. Making cross-laminated timber and producing 135-metre span bridges and 30-storey towers – that’s something else.” The innovation goes far beyond building infrastructure faster and stronger, two key advantages of the cross-laminated timber (CLT) technology (an engineered product that uses multiple layers of wood, each layer crosswise to the next, to increase dimensional stability and strength in framing systems) that FPInnovations and its members are pushing. It’s developing a whole new language for business development in forestry.

“I can speak French, I can speak English, and I can speak politics,” says Lapointe, who spent the first 17 years of his career at Natural Resources Canada before heading l’Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) and, ultimately, FPInnovations.“But can I speak to the chemical industry? Can I speak to the oil and gas industry? This is the biggest change that has happened to forestry: talking to other sectors.”

Introduction of CLT to the North American market and the large-scale production of cellulose filaments (CF) – a wood-fibre-based biomaterial that can be used as a strengthening agent for traditional pulp and paper products and a slew of new products including thermoplastics, reinforced plastics, adhesives and coatings – are two of the marquee initiatives coming out of Canada’s forestry sector today. But FPInnovations is also leading the charge on a wide range of surprising new innovations, including new transportation technologies.

“We invented a self-inflating and deflating tire system for our trucks,” Lapointe says. “So when you are on a gravel road, the pressure adjusts down; when you get onto a paved road, the pressure of the tires goes up. You save fuel; you save a lot on road maintenance.” The technology is finding a receptive audience not only in forestry but also mining, which shares a lot of the same rough roads. For the oil and gas sector, FPInnovations has created a carpet made of poplar for use during pipeline construction in environmentally sensitive areas: “You just lay it down and the truck drives on, and you don’t disturb the environment,” Lapointe explains. Because the carpet is biodegradable, companies can leave it behind when they’re finished construction.

One challenge facing FPInnovations and other such organizations is a Canadian aversion to taking risks – and funding them. “We are very good at the research, we’re very good at the training, but we have a lot of difficulty when innovation has to go from intellectual property towards commercialization,” Lapointe notes. “If you go to the U.S., there is a lot of venture capital. If you go to Germany or France, you’ll see a lot more of government taking risk.” To that end, one of Lapointe’s biggest achievements as CEO has been convincing both federal and provincial levels of government of the value of investing in the pre-commercialization stage of FPInnovations projects – to take that risk where the private sector will not. “What I’ve been telling them is, ‘I will deliver on the output if you take the risk of investing in us,’” he says.

Lapointe highlights a joint venture with Domtar called CelluForce, a Quebec-based company that has become the world leader in the commercial development of nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC), which is extracted from woody biomass and processed into solid flake, liquid and gel forms. NCC improves the strength and toughness of whatever it’s added to, with possible uses ranging from advanced packaging to bone replacement to high-strength textiles. “Government was willing to get in with us at the pre-commercial stage,” Lapointe says. The Quebec plant will produce one tonne of NCC per day to make specialized coatings and advanced materials out of hardwood chips, with the new facility the first in the world to yield NCC on such a scale. FPInnovations’ success has been noted south of the border, where the Americans have lacked a strong, researched-focused voice in the forestry sector.

“They’re saying, ‘We see the success you guys are having. Why don’t we try to have an equivalent of FPInnovations in the U.S.?’” Lapointe recounts. Talks are underway with FPInnovations to set up a parallel body to serve U.S. industry needs.

“What the forest sector has just started to realize is that in the 19th century and 20th century, there was a lot of creativity about paper and packaging – and somehow we’ve lost this creativity,” says Lapointe. “Now we’re coming back to being creative.”

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