Fresh Opportunities - Thunder Bay Bioeconomy Institute Looks to Lead the Wave

CRIBE CEO Lorne Morrow is set to help lead the North's forestry industry into the new bioeconomy.

By IAN ROSS
Northern Ontario Business

Lorne Morrow rode the down cycle of the forestry industry in northwestern Ontario. Now he's on the forefront of the leading edge of its hopeful resurgence.

As the CEO of the Centre for Research and Innovation in the Bio-Economy (CRIBE), he's playing matchmaker to help put the forestry back together and operating on a higher, value-added plain.

The Confederation College-based institute is tasked to kick-start Ontario's bioeconomy by coming up with new innovative products which improve the forest value chain.

CRIBE doesn't perform any actual research but merely serves as a coordinating body that teams up the government, companies and post-secondary institutions. The goal is to help develop new forest products to the pre-commercial stage, then let industry carry them to market.

"That's what the job is, connecting people. We see ourselves as a conduit. I can put you on the first date, but I can't pick your bride for you."

CRIBE is designed to be a lean and 'green' non-profit organization with little bureaucracy.

Trained as a professional forester, Morrow knows firsthand about the forest industry's struggles. He was manager of Norampac's linerboard mill Red Rock from 1995 to its closing in 2007.

Then he was off to the Ministry of Natural Resources, handling the cooperative Sustainable Forest Licence file for a year before the CRIBE job came up.

The ministry experience proved invaluable because it allowed him to travel to mills from one end of Northern Ontario to the other.

"I was involved in the closing of bush camps as a logging superintendent. Went to the mills and watched them die. If this is one piece of the success puzzle, I don't mind being part of it."

Since becoming CEO of CRIBE Dec. 1, Morrow is backed up by an impressive board of directors led by former Tembec founder Frank Dottori.

With the CRIBE website launched this spring and proposals beginning to trickle in, Morrow feels like he's finally in business.

"I'm really enjoying it because it's a whole different group of people. I loved working with 500 men in the mill and all the stuff that went with it but it drove you crazy."Armed with a $25 million investment fund, Morrow's job is weeding out the contenders from the pretenders.

Proposals have to be forest biomass-based and must add value. "Taking a tree, grinding it up and burning it, we struggle with the value there.

Using his 30 years of experience in the forestry industry, the straight-talking Morrow said proposals can't be any longer than 10 pages.

He reviews the draft and if it passes muster, it's sent to an investment committee who can perform due diligence on a proponent, such as a financial audit, before it's passed on to the CRIBE board.

The turnaround time for proponents to get an answer is 100 days.

CRIBE will fund up to 50 per cent of a project in grants or loans. The proponents have to finance 25 per cent in cash and the rest with in-kind contributions or from other funding sources.

"It's a bit of a field of dreams. We built the field, now teams have to come and play."

The industry buy-in is certainly there, said Morrow. Wherever he goes, he is welcomed with open arms.

"A company came to visit me on a Friday and I had them in three paper mills the next week. That tells you mills are interested."

While forestry companies like AbitibiBowater - currently under creditor protection - don't have the money to spend on research and innovation, they contribute inkind by lending their expertise, their labour and opening up their mills for research work.

"The forestry workers realize just making newsprint and two-by-fours, you won't survive. They realize they've got to add value on that feedstock stream or they're not going to be in business."

Just before Christmas, CRIBE announced a formal partnership with FP Innovations, a national forestry research institute, to forge ahead in developing a biorefinery demonstration plant.

The marquee project for CRIBE will be establishing a small bio-refinery demonstration plant established on the Abitibi-Bowater site in Thunder Bay.

Two staff from FP Innovations are based at the mill and are renovating a lab space there.

Part of the job is to see if biorefining technologies can be shoehorned into conventional mill operations.

It will serve as a test bed to research new uses for wood, pulp and biomass that can be commercialized into nextgeneration green fuels, fibres, composites and chemicals.

Methanol production is a possibility. Another is extracting and transforming lignin (a chemical compound derived from wood) for use in future forest products and a substitute for petroleum-based products.

With FP Innovations, they are also studying the feasibility of establishing a 50-tonne per day lignin plant.

Morrow envisions that someday these types of bio-refineries being piggybacked onto all mill operations. Besides Abitibi-Bowater, he said his group is lining up other potentialmill sites in Ontario.

"The forestry industry has the feedstock to make pulp and two-by-fours. Can we take something else off that stream to create a higher value?

Another project is looking at torrefied wood, a high quality biomass fuel that can be co-fired with coal at generating stations.

Morrow also expects to see CRIBE support for a couple of combined heat and power plants on remote First Nation reserves to help wean these communities off expensive diesel fuel-fired generators.

He's excited about the year ahead. CRIBE and FP expect to invest between $6 million and $7 million on projects this year.

Over CRIBE's four-year mandate, he expects the institute will have leveraged about $50 to $60 million in other funding on top of the original $25 million investment fund.

If it has legs beyond 2013, Morrow said CRIBE will have to produce some tangible results.

"If CRIBE is successful it will have created jobs, it will have supported existing industry, and brought new products to the marketplace, and government will gladly fund the CRIBE beyond the four-year mandate."