Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions (AI Bio) invests in research in the fields of agriculture, food and forestry. Its core business is identifying, coordinating, and funding leading edge research initiatives that could transform these sectors.
“Our mandate is to work with these industries in all parts of the continuum, whether there’s basic research that is required, applied work and adaptive kind of activities,” explains Dr. Stan Blade, CEO of AI Bio. “Our primary concern is to make sure Alberta industries remain profitable and globally competitive.”
Some of the initiatives that AI Bio is currently involved in include improving canola vegetable oil quality, enhancing the health benefits and taste of meat products, developing new products derived from agriculture and forest fibre, as well as projects that ensure food safety.
“The combined economic activity of agriculture, food and forestry in this province is well over $25 billion. This includes substantial amounts of farm-gate receipts going back to agricultural producers, between eight to $12 billion a year, a food processing industry that is somewhere around $12 billion a year, and then a forest industry that falls in the $4.5 billion range. These are important industries for the province of Alberta, they are renewable industries, and they have just a remarkable fit, both for their rural development elements, but in the straight economic and diversification opportunities that they offer the province,” says Blade.
Working with the other Alberta Innovates corporations is part of day-to-day activity at AI Bio Solutions.
“The most interesting things happen at those interfaces. On a number of research calls we’ve collaborated with Alberta Innovates Health Solutions in food and nutrition, with Alberta Innovates Energy and Environment Solutions we’ve worked very closely on the bio-energy file and in the case of commercialization we’re very much in lockstep with Alberta Innovates Technology Futures. Another example is our support for the Alberta Biomaterials Development Centre in collaboration with Alberta Innovates Technology Futures. Really, it’s about working very closely together, sharing networks and making sure that things get done.”
As of this year, AI Bio is managing more than 160 active projects in an investment portfolio of more than $71 million over the lifetime of these projects. The agreements span a wide array of research in priority areas such as boreal reclamation, nanocrystalline cellulose, livestock genomics, prions, and dietary fibre from peas, beans or lentils.
In total, AI Bio has five priority areas of Alberta Innovates science and innovation investments.
“The first is tied to sustainable production, so things to do with making sure that we can continue to produce high-quality products, whether it’s fibre from our forests or crops or livestock. This can encompass everything from genomics research, working on the most recent canola disease or even something as obscure as looking at issues around grizzly bear recovery. Our second focus area is food innovation. This is everything from working with industry, companies like Maple Leaf Foods and General Mills Canada, applying science in developing improved basic ingredients, whether it’s improving the quality of flour from pulse crops like peas, looking at the health benefits of things like canola oil and in fact improving the nutritious nature of some of those vegetable oils.”
AI Bio also has strong interest in bioeconomy activities, representing a third area of interest. This includes supporting projects such as using biomass in ways that go beyond traditional commodities. This has led to a wide array of research, including investments in the Biorefining Conversions Network based at the University of Alberta.
“The general principle behind this initiative is tearing biomass apart and combining it back in unique ways that will be of interest to buyers in the biomaterial, biochemical and bioenergy industries in Canada and around the world.”
The fourth area is AI Bio involvement in Prion research, which was one of the very first initiatives AI Bio took on.
“We inherited the work of the Alberta Prion Research Institute and subsequently had another re-investment from the government of Alberta of over $15 million to continue this work to understand prions, not just for BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or Mad Cow Disease) but to understand more about its relationship to human disease.
There are a number of human dementias – Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS, that seem to also have a basis in prion science. So some of the work Alberta has invested admittedly starting on the livestock side, there appears to be aspects that are also related to the human side.”
A fifth and final area is tied to ecosystem services. Focusing on environmental solutions and on enhancing those ecosystem services not currently rewarded through existing markets, by using economic or market-based instruments, is a strategic area of priority for AI Bio.
In 2012-13 AI Bio invested more than $15 million in its five priority areas, says Blade. Blade explains that the direction of AI Bio in allocating its investments, like the other Alberta Innovates corporations, is guided by an independent board of industry experts.
“They identify certainly these five areas and we will put out calls for proposals in specific areas, whether it’s around food for health or green building activities, those kinds of things, because of the way we’re set up we can sometimes be proactive and go to what we determine to be the best science group and ask them to do some work for us, some of this work is on a recurring basis. As an example, we’ve had specific calls around using genomics as a diagnostic tool both for listeria and for e coli, and in this instance we partnered with Genome Canada and Genome Alberta.
In another case our partner was the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. So we engage the science community and come up with potential opportunities, usually around technologies that are going to help our industry both in the short and long term. This type of work is peerreviewed and of course we have a periodic reporting process of checking on the milestones of the project, making sure that groups are delivering on what they’ve committed to.”
There are already examples of success stories spinning out of AI Bio investments.
“In the area of bio-economy we’ve started to interact with groups that were not traditional partner stakeholders for us. There’s a company, BioComposites Group a subsidiary of TTS Inc, that’s working in one of the smaller forest-based towns in Alberta. They are doing really interesting things with fibre to produce different kinds of biomaterials like engineered fibre mats for autoparts and erosion control. They have now set up a facility that’s going to be commissioned very soon. We also hope to support a joint project with Magna and with other companies that are very interested in developing high quality fibres for the autoparts industry and others. In the case of livestock genomics, we made an investment in livestock Gentec, an Alberta Innovates Centre based at the University of Alberta, which has led to a spinoff company, Delta Genomics. They are in the process of developing high throughput processors that can use genomic information and give a sense to an animal’s important traits and how those traits might be passed on to the next generation.”
To read more about AI Bio, visit www.bio.albertainnovates.ca.