As the CEO of FPInnovations, Stéphane Renou knows what he’s got. At the helm of a world-leading R&D organization specializing in solutions to support Canada’s forest sector, Renou is cognizant of the scientific and technical powerhouse he commands, yet remains mindful and grateful for the engine that makes the entire FPInnovations machine work: its people.
Renou was appointed President and CEO of the not-for-profit organization in 2017, and has devoted the past three years to supporting and advancing creative solutions to Canada’s forestry industry’s most complex challenges, all the while building a dynamic and integrated workforce. With degrees in bio and chemical engineering and a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering, Renou was something of a global citizen for a number of years as he built his career in the U.S. and Italy before returning to his native Montreal, QC to lead FPInnovations. “The opportunity to return to Montreal really brought me full circle,” Renou recalls. “My first love was process control and so to work in the forest industry in this area, was a really fascinating space for me.”
All about the people
FPInnovations has carved out an important space for itself as a provider of solutions that underpin competitiveness for Canada’s forest sector. The organization undertakes state-of-the-art research to develop advanced technology designed to respond to problems all along the sector’s value chain, from the forest resource, to the factory floor, to the marketplace. With laboratories strategically located on the East and West Coasts and technology transfer offices located across the country, FPInnovations is 395 employees strong, which is a source of tremendous pride for Renou. “Our biggest asset will always be our people,” he says. “We need a concentration of very specific skill sets – our people need not only to be experts in their field, but they are also required to be able to navigate across multiple dimensions. It takes ten years on average to train a great technology leader after they complete their Ph.D. You first need an applied researcher who excels in their field, and then help that person transform to develop the soft skills required to interact with customers, to network, and to teach others complex matters in an accessible way. So it’s not just about being a great researcher – it’s having the skills to take that research and advance it. It’s about knowing what needs to happen and making it happen. It’s about having great scientists who can become great leaders. We are constantly looking for those people - every day.”
To get the people FPInnovations needs, Renou says the search for talent begins in the university halls. “Networking within universities and collaborating with professors who develop talent is a huge part of what we do.” While Renou is quick to commend the quality and calibre of Canada’s universities and the talent they churn out, he also notes that a gap in expectations when it comes to the proverbial ‘brain transfer’ can be a difficult one to manage. “It doesn’t only matter what you did your Ph.D on – it’s about what more you can do, what you can do differently, and better. There is something of a gap when it comes to managing what is expected from graduates leaving universities. This isn’t only an issue in Canada to be sure, but some other countries definitely do it better. Germany for example has a great system – they integrate students into industry much earlier, and they manage to do this without compromising the integrity or the depth of their student’s research. It allows a student to dip in to real life challenges. That’s the flaw in many of our Masters or Ph.D level programs – we plant the seeds of research, but we often fall down on being able to recognize what is the best solution and then how to apply it. The trick is to train our brains to answer problems – we can’t just feed our students with knowledge alone.”
Climate as an accelerant for change
If ever there were an opportune time to enter the sector and be faced with complex, dynamic and meaningful challenges and opportunities, climate change has certainly fostered that environment for the organization, and the forestry sector as whole. Renou notes the crucial role the forestry sector has to play in Canada’s climate change response, giving a serious nod to the importance with which FPInnovations takes the issue. The challenge of climate change presents a veritable goldmine of opportunity for the organization, with inroads to be made wherever a natural product can be substituted for a synthetic one. “We are constantly in search of opportunities to replace less carbon efficient products with bio-sourced, carbon-neutral equivalents,” Renou notes. “Our approach is to put the data on the table, and then look at the areas where we can help – where we can increase the input of natural fibres into the supply chain. Canada has a great, renewable forest, and an industry willing to invest. But it needs something to develop – there needs to be a buyer, and a seller. We work hard to stimulate these relationships; we work with a lot of owners on renewable packaging for example. When a brand wants a great solution, we first need to understand what their ‘pull factors’ are. Governments also have a big role to play. A shift to biofuel for example, or championing the carbon advantage, is important but often more costly, and so policy decisions must be taken to drive the right incentives so the market will chase after these solutions. Policy is often the fundamental tool to getting the bioeconomy rolling.”
Forestry 4.0 is another major preoccupation for the organization, and as Renou notes, the concept ‘applies everywhere.’ Forestry 4.0, FPInnocations’ forestry digitilisation program, operates on the premise that ‘things are happening and industry needs to collect the data about these things.’ At a more meta level, this could involve the reliance on drones to survey the road systems leading to forests, and the collection and application of that data and information to ensure the road system is being used in an optimal way. “It’s about pulling elements together and ensuring the data collected translates to maximum outputs. When it comes to the products coming out of paper mills, it’s about how we reduce emissions, for example,” Renou explains.
The impact of COVID-19
When asked how the Novel Coronavirus has impacted the day-to-day operations of FPInnovations and its mandate more broadly, Renou takes a pause, then lets out a sigh. “Well, of course it directly affected our scientists who work in a laboratory setting, and were unable to do so for a period of time. That was very difficult. It impacted our finances, it impacted people we have trained for so long who were suddenly unable to do all of the laboratory work they were hired to do, and it impacted the industry as a whole because the pandemic drastically and dramatically altered consumer behavior. While we saw a decline in activity on the pulp and paper side, largely due to the decrease in demand for commercial papers (think how many fewer businesses were seeking to print and distribute advertisements/flyers), I think the pandemic simply accelerated a lot of the trends that we were already seeing. And so for us, COVID-19 pushed us to move even faster on the transformations we were already making – a bigger push toward digitilisation and forestry 4.0, for example. It’s difficult for everyone, but our mandate is, and continues to be about helping industry by transferring skills and solutions in a way that demonstrates flexibility and optimization,” Renou says matter-of-factly.
U.S. presidential election
Looking forward to the fall, and to the impact of possible outcomes of the November U.S. elections, Renou remains decidedly grounded and factual. “It goes without saying that Canada’s relationship with the U.S. is important from a commercial perspective, and extremely important for our industry in particular given the volume of products we export to the U.S. We are watching with interest – just like everybody else. The situation certainly highlights the importance of market diversification, however. Markets in Asia and Europe are accessible, reliable and robust and so as we increasingly focus on value-added products, it needs to also be with those markets in mind.”
Overall, Renou appears steadfast in his approach, ready and capable to weather shifting political dynamics, climate change, and global pandemics. “Really, it’s all about focusing on our impact; it’s about applying the research and improving outcomes for clients and for the industry as fast as we can.”