Institute helps feed innovators get off the ground

Colleen Christensen can’t tell you all of the details of her work — they’re confidential.

But there’s a good chance that if you’ve heard about an innovative new livestock feed, it’s come across her desk at the University of Saskatchewan’s Feeds Innovation Institute.

Wheat dried distillers grain, a by-product of ethanol production, and meal from carinata, an upstart oilseed crop, are a few areas her organization has worked in recently, yet many producers might be unfamiliar with the FII, let alone its executive director.

The organization works business to business and does so confidentially, providing a number of ongoing research and advisory services to companies developing new feed products. That’s everything from laboratory work expressing a feed’s nutritional profile to market feasibility analysis and assistance registering products.

Over its six-year history, total revenues from these contracts — which can be as small as $500 and as large as $100,000 — have exceeded $1 million.

“If I couldn’t make a million dollars, then what I’m doing wouldn’t be relevant. But I do. I have that many people who are interested. They realize that when they’re starting a bio-economy company or biorefinery that they have several revenue streams and they need to develop the animal feed industry in order to create a viable sustainable company,” said Christensen, who’s led the FII since 2007.

“The industry realizes that more and more they’ll be moving away from the traditional feed grains, the barley and wheat, and every other co-product that they can use is beneficial for them as well.”

The institution, described as a public-private commercialization centre, provides industry players with a link to the university’s facilities and faculty.

As executive director, Christensen’s role is multi-faceted, re-quiring her to fall back on both her laboratory and office know-how — communicating with a lab technician, cold-calling potential clients and working with industry stakeholders who will use the university’s new feed research centre in North Battleford, Sask., which will further its capacity to conduct feed research on an industrial scale.

“Because I started early enough in my career, I’ve always done both. So I can switch my hat pretty easily and both are difficult,” said Christensen, who followed up a PhD in reproductive immunology with more business-minded stints with the Sask-atoon Colostrum Company and the Canadian Light Source Inc.

Among the FII’s clients is Agrisoma, the company which contracted some 6,500 brassica carinata acres across Western Canada in 2012.

The company, which is crushing the seed in the U.S., is interested in the crop for biofuel production, but is working with Christensen and the FII to better understand the protein makeup of the remaining meal and its potential as a livestock feed.

While not cleared by Canadian regulators, the meal is an important piece to establishing the industry and crop, said Patrick Crampton, vice-president of business and product development for Agrisoma, but as a byproduct, it’s not part of the company’s “core competency” and something the company chose not to handle in-house.

“Colleen and the feed institute have been a great resource to start with a very broad canvas and then provide that level of detail that helps us prioritize the work to be done,” Crampton said.

Christensen also spearheads larger research projects with results geared for whole industries. One such initiative resulted in the publication of the Wheat DDGS Feed Guide, a resource for the use of wheat dried distiller grains with solubles in beef and dairy cattle, swine, poultry and aquaculture in 2011, while a similar project is underway for camellia.

These projects provide a resource to young companies and industries developing novel meals. The re-sources provide innovators in that sector, companies like Agrisoma that might not have the capacity to do the foundational work on a byproduct themselves, a leg up.

“Everything that I do is foundational. It’s always research in some sort of way and it’s always applied research because we’re involving industry as much as we possibly can,” said Christensen.

“It’s just that it’s that much earlier in the discovery phase that you don’t have a bunch of private companies willing to pay for the research yet.”

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