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Sherbrooke University aims to turn cross-border research into business opportunities

A group of students and their professor in a research center.


Jean-Michel Lavoie is determined to prove that international education can pave the way for small business acorns to grow into mighty oaks.

Three people discussing in the research lab .
Minister Catherine McKenna (right) meets with Jean-Michel Lavoie (centre) and Patrik Doucet, Sherbrooke University’s dean of engineering, at the university’s biological laboratory.

Lavoie, a professor at Sherbrooke University in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, is an expert on converting biomass, such as bark, sawdust and straw, into fuel and other valuable chemical compounds.

His research has brought him into contact with numerous companies in that field in Canada and Europe, enabling him to act as a link between academia and business in promoting innovation. “When we work with a start-up company as a partner, we want to help them with their technology. But if the opportunity comes for them to explore new options in Europe or somewhere else in the world, for example, using their old tires or producing diesel, we are going to try to help them with that too.”

A crucial stepping stone was an introduction eight years ago to David Chiaramonti, a researcher at the University of Florence in Italy, who is one of Europe’s leading biofuel experts.

The two men have become close collaborators with the aim of turning their research into tangible business opportunities on both sides of the Atlantic.

“We have the same vision of developing a bio-product in a bio-economy,” Lavoie says. “With David’s help, I’m trying to match the partners that I have in Canada with opportunities in Europe, and vice versa.”

“Italian and other European companies are interested in Canada for the attractive price of energy and the abundance of residual green carbon, while Canadian companies want to go to Europe for the size of the market and the commitment to renewables. However, they need good links with the people on the ground. We’re trying to be those links.”

A group of students and their professor in a research center.
Jean-Michel Lavoie with his team at Sherbrooke University’s new Scale-Up Centre.

Lavoie has forged partnerships with several start-ups in Canada that could benefit from his and Chiaramonti’s research. Among them is Resolve Energie, located in the Eastern Townships town of Saint-Romain, Quebec, which has plans for a refinery that would use discarded tree bark to produce pellets, biogas and ethanol. According to Lavoie, “this technology could be really interesting in Italy, where the industrial use of biogas is booming.”

Across the Atlantic, Chiaramonti has set up a consultancy that has close ties to the European Commission in Brussels. With financial support from the commission, he launched the ART Fuels Forum, a group comprising policy-makers, the transport industry and international organizations to spur the development and adoption of renewable fuels.

The Canadian Trade Commissioner Service (TCS) has been invaluable in moving the process forward. Its support has included lining up useful contacts, arranging meetings and organizing a delegation of Italian entrepreneurs to Canada earlier this year in search of business opportunities. The TCS, Lavoie says, “basically represents the catalyst for the network we are trying to put together.”

According to Lavoie, the Canadian-European Union Comprehensive and Trade Agreement (CETA) facilitates Canada-EU partnerships in research and development, which can provide business opportunities for bio-products and other renewable products. “Given Canada and the EU have committed to significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, CETA could be a perfect catalyst to stimulate trade in renewable carbon and the renewable energy sector more broadly. Canada has abundant resources and expertise in the area, and when combined with the advantages offered by CETA, provides an incredible opportunity for Canadian and European companies to be leaders in the emerging bio-economy.”

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