Intense collaboration with no limits is one of Stéphane Renou’s aims as he takes over as head of the Canadian-based R&D institute.
Although he spent close to two decades working with industrial giant GE, the pulp and paper industry was not unfamiliar to Stéphane Renou when he took over as president and CEO of FPInnovations in late 2017.
While studying toward his Ph.D. in Quebec, Renou did part of his studies at the Montreal-based research institute then known as Paprican, working in the fields of bleaching and process control. (FPInnovations was the result of a 2007 merger among three Canadian forest products industry research institutes: Paprican, FERIC, and Forintek.)
As his studies came to an end, Renou knew his career had two possible paths: academia or industry. GE felt Renou was better suited to industry and approached him to join the company, where he worked in GE’s US research center before heading to Florence, Italy, and then back to the US where he spent the next 17 years.
He led teams in GE’s Aviation and Oil & Gas divisions. He was also leader of Industrial Outcomes Optimization at GE Global Research. This cross-industry experience is something he wants to bring to FPInnovations.
“I went there because of the depth of knowledge and the number of personnel there who were like me, striving to build the future. There was so much knowledge to access, so much to learn. You were always working with the best.”
This principle of accessing knowledge is one of Renou’s priorities as he begins his FPInnovations career. “I truly see that as one of the challenges here. Overall, our research and development density is good, but it gets shallow really quickly when you need to put a whole process together.
“As well, to innovate, you need a lot of other people around you, a cross-section. Innovations rarely come from extreme depth in one domain, but through cross-pollination,” Renou explains. “So, how do we create the right environment for the industry so we can provide innovation? It is through intense collaboration with no limits.”
Innovation means openness of mind, he adds; it is not self-centered. “Innovation happens in front of a ‘white board’ where people collaborate and see each other’s work and even challenge each other.”
This is something Renou experienced at GE that he wants to bring to FPInnovations. “It relates to the impact we want to have here. If we can collaborate more, we can offer more.”
Call it collaboration or networking, it is the core to solving problems, Renou adds. “We want to go in front of the producers to say what we have as well as to researchers from the chemical, paint, plastics, or adhesives sectors to say what we have. We want to help them create new things we don’t know about yet, to create a pull for our products and expertise rather than to push them.
“We need to go into these sectors much stronger than we have. It is not a commercial proposition, but to help create new products, open new markets.”
FPInnovations developed a strategic action plan covering the years 2015-2020. Coming in during the midst of it, Renou admits that a change in leadership often means a change in thinking. However, for the most part, he agrees with the content of the plan. He says he is trying to simplify the message, to concentrate on filling the needs of FPInnovations’ member companies. There are two keys: operational excellence and creating market pull cooperation.
Renou leans more to applied research rather than the fundamental field. “Research innovations can be ‘operationalized’. That’s what I’m trying to aim for.”
He sees more value in problem-driven research while leaving room for exploratory research. “Ask the right questions and the solutions will come as the problem becomes clear. When the market pulls, it tells us what it needs and we can fill that need.”
This is the type of mindset that Renou wants to see at FPInnovations. “This is a fundamental switch that will evolve here. We want to instill the business mindset in a scientist.”
Renou says this is a sign of the times and the changes that are happening in the industry. It’s an established fact that the days of the large, producer-operated R&D center are over (with a few exceptions.) But, Renou points out, the pulp and paper industry is no different than other industries.
Today, a research institute such as FPInnovations must be able to meet its members’ core demands while having trained scientists who can collaborate with others, such as universities and independent research bodies, so that findings can be transferred back to industry.
It is a network that needs to grow. “Our job is to innovate and transfer this work back to industry—but,” Renou stresses, “we cannot create everything by ourselves. We need to be able to access other knowledge.” And this knowledge may reside outside the pulp and paper industry.
Renou also sees FPInnovation’s role as being like that of a translator, from the world of fundamental science to that of applied science, helping mills understand the principles. “We listen to the mills, hear the problems, then go back to the world of science to solve the problems and transfer the solutions back to the mill.”
It is technology transfer, but the solutions could come from outside the pulp and paper sector, he adds—thus the call for the intense collaboration that Renou seeks.
With all the movement toward a “bio-economy,” is there still room for research in traditional pulp and paper products? Absolutely, Renou says. “Both have to happen. The interaction point is where the process evolves.
“Will we see a mill evolve into a complete lignin and sugar mill? I don’t know yet. Classical C6 sugars can be obtained from other products. It will be the economics and overall value proposition that will dictate the outcome.”
Renou says that he can envision a traditional mill surrounded by sidestream projects much like Metsä Fibre is doing at Ääneskoski (see story on page 19 of this issue) or UPM Biofore with its structure. “The creation of new bioproducts is still in flux,” Renou explains. “The higher you can sustain the complexity of the molecule, the more value you create.”
FPInnovations recently signed an agreement with Resolute Forest Products for a TMP-Bio pilot project aimed at developing and commercializing “innovative bio-chemicals derived from wood.” “We have already identified several possible applications and are working to develop them,” Renou adds. “You can do a ton of research creating new bio-chemicals. But why, and what is the value they will create?”
The final exact products have not been determined. “It varies,” Renou adds. “We are still at the beginning of exploration.”
He goes on to note that FPInnovations has vast experience with chemicals, but connecting that experience and knowledge to the development of new products is what’s important. “The valorization of the chemicals we have is what’s needed. We still don’t know the value of all applications. But, we know we can’t do it alone.”
WIDENING ITS SCOPE
In recent years, FPInnovations has reached out from its Canadian base to take on more international projects. Renou says this will be ongoing. “Intense collaboration is the key, so geography does not matter. In terms of science, the world is our laboratory.”
It is nothing new to say the industry is now global. But, Renou adds, this globalization helps improve the industry. “Technology is a great equalizer. The more it evolves, the more applications you can develop.”
Each nation has its “bag of tricks,” according to Renou, such as fiber in the case of Canada—but what can the country do with it? “Technology levels the field,” he adds. “And it will be a technology story. It will go through the process, even perhaps modifying it. We can do a lot more with wood than we think.”
In this regard, he sees FPInnovations’ role as an enabler. “The more we can position ourselves to help the industry grow markets, the more we can help government attract partners to Canada.”
In conclusion, Renou says that when he joined FPInnovations and came back to the industry, it was a bit of a shock to realize how “We all need to increase the speed of what we do and our focus—that is, a fundamental review of how we do things. There is a sense that we need to accelerate transformation because the market is moving faster than we are. When compared with other countries, Canadian industry needs to move faster.”
He says the forest products industry in Canada is competing not only with its international counterparts, but with other sectors such as plastics as well. “How can we put Canadian forest products in the forefront of the market? We need to be the partner of choice.”
Graeme Rodden is senior editor, North and South America, for Paper360°. You can reach him at [email protected]
Autonomous Shuttle Will Be Ready For the Future
When one pushes technology, it can go in many directions. A few years back, UPM Biofore attracted a lot of attention with a concept car that includes many cellulose-derived components in its construction.
FPInnovations has also announced a transport-related project, although not dealing with cellulose. It has partnered with ABB, Ericsson Canada, Motrec International, and Technoparc Montréal for the development of an electric autonomous shuttle, adapted to Canadian winter conditions.
How did this come about? Renou explains it started with transport in the forest and possible improvements such as driving aids, fuel efficiency, and hybrid solutions; this led to the principle of the autonomous vehicle. The project was spurred on by the forest harvesting team at FPInnovations.
“It goes back to critical mass,” Renou says. “How do we create it in forest products transport? And this goes back to networking. Do we see its use in the future? Yes, but when and how is difficult to say. So, we are getting involved in a project that explores the potential; it gets us ready.”