Turning biomass into plastic with Canadian expertise

When biochemicals company Origin Materials started in California in 2008, it sought to unlock the potential of furan chemistry: a process that can create plastics from sustainable and renewable biomass like wood chips and cardboard instead of the petroleum products traditionally used for polymer manufacturing. But for Origin to grow, it first needed to show that its innovative method was commercially viable at a large scale. Its demonstration plant in Sarnia, Ontario, was designed to do just that — and to do it right, the company needed qualified workers who could hit the ground running, learn on the go and get the new plant operational.

When biochemicals company Origin Materials started in California in 2008, it sought to unlock the potential of furan chemistry: a process that can create plastics from sustainable and renewable biomass like wood chips and cardboard instead of the petroleum products traditionally used for polymer manufacturing. But for Origin to grow, it first needed to show that its innovative method was commercially viable at a large scale. Its demonstration plant in Sarnia, Ontario, was designed to do just that — and to do it right, the company needed qualified workers who could hit the ground running, learn on the go and get the new plant operational.

 

A CHANCE ENCOUNTER PAVES THE WAY FOR SUCCESS

Amanda Medina, Origin’s Human Resources Manager, had an experience profile in mind for the jobs required at the company’s new Canadian plant but was having a hard time finding candidates who matched it. Her task was all the more difficult because she had just one employee in Canada at the time and little familiarity with the Canadian programs that could help her access the talent she needed.

That all changed when Origin’s Chief Commercial Officer discovered BioTalent Canada at the Scaling Up Conference in Ottawa. While the company didn’t go to that conference looking for a wage-subsidy program, when it learned about Science Horizons, it suddenly made the company’s path forward in Canada much clearer.

“Programs like this aren’t so easily accessible in the United States,” said Medina. “So when I heard about what BioTalent Canada could offer, it almost sounded too good to be true.”

 

SURPASSING EXPECTATIONS

The wage subsidy helped reduce the risk of hiring a less-experienced candidate and enabled Origin to bring on a young worker whose passion for the job and enthusiasm for learning made her a significant asset. As a member of a very small team, she took on a wide range of responsibilities at the new plant, ranging from writing reports and managing data to overseeing the commissioning and implementation of the reactor’s chemical pathways — including producing standard operating procedures and other documentation for running the plant once it was operational.

Medina noted that while the wage subsidy provided by BioTalent Canada made a huge difference, she especially appreciated how streamlined the application and reporting processes were — for a small biotech company, it can be difficult to dedicate resources to pursuing overly complicated programs. The funding and support Origin received also allowed it to focus more of its efforts on hiring for other areas of the plant, bringing on even more skilled Canadian bio-economy workers to help get things up and running faster.

The first hire through the Science Horizons program was soon followed by a second, and Medina said it likely won’t be the last.

“The people we were able to hire through this program surpassed our expectations,” said Medina. “Without them, I really don’t know if we would have gotten the plant open on time.”