Tiny particles, big ambitions

How cellulose nanocrystals developed at McGill stand to create opportunities in Quebec’s forestry sector and advance sustainability around the world 
Nathan Hordy (left) and Tim Morse, McGill graduates and co-founders of Anomera

Researchers at a McGill University chemistry lab led by Professor Mark Andrews may not have imagined that their work on cellulose nanocrystals would end up creating economic opportunity in the northwestern Quebec region of Abitibi-Témiscamingue. 

Their quest to get cellulose nanocrystals to yield vibrant iridescent colours led to the founding in 2016 of Anomera. Today, the company’s range of cellulose nanocrystal products, which are created from wood pulp and wood waste, have an array of environmentally friendly applications, ranging from replacing microplastics in cosmetics to reducing the carbon footprint of products like concrete. 

New opportunity for forestry towns 

Anomera opened a $30 million manufacturing facility in Témiscaming, Quebec

Two years ago, Anomera opened a $30 million manufacturing facility in Témiscaming, population 2,400, located 570 kilometres northwest of Montreal. At present, it provides jobs for nine people in the region, with another 15 employees at the company’s offices and laboratories in downtown Montreal. More importantly, Anomera provides an innovative and sustainable path to diversify Quebec’s forestry products sector.  

It was never my intention to start a company, it just happened,” said Tim Morse, PhD. As a McGill doctoral student, Morse had the idea to synthesize nanoparticles using dilute hydrogen peroxide, a process much more environmentally friendly than the one used previously. Today, the native of New Brunswick is the company’s senior director, research and innovation.  

The company’s founders testify to the key role that McGill continues to play in attracting top talent to Quebec. Its chief operating officer, Nathan Hordy, PhD, part of the original McGill team, came to McGill from Ontario. Monika Rak, PhD, came to McGill from Manitoba, and has remained in Montreal, though she is no longer with the company.  

Originally from Nova Scotia, Andrews was educated in Ontario, and then went to New Jersey, where he worked with Nobel-prize winner Arno Penzias at the world-renowned Bell Labs. While still a shareholder, Andrews no longer is on the board but still has an advisory role. 

Sustainable manufacturing in Témiscaming 

The young business has already succeeded in raising more than $50 million from a mix of public and private funders. French cosmetics giant Chanel provided some early research funding and has been a strong partner to Anomera over the years 

Anomera’s new CEO and president, Benoit Garant, is focused on taking the startup to the next level and positioning it as a sustainable leader in novel cellulose materials.  

Benoit Garant, CEO and president of Anomera

“We’re 100 per cent sustainable. The world has severe problems with the environment, with CO2 emissions, with plastic, and we are banging exactly that nail. Not only is our product sustainable, but our manufacturing process is sustainable, so this makes us a very low CO2 emissions company,” Garant said.  

That profile aligns well with the Quebec government’s focus on promoting sustainability in economic development, he pointed out. In 2006, Quebec was one of the first jurisdictions to adopt legislation targeting sustainable development. Investissement Québec has been an important source of funding, as have federal programs and private investors, not least forest products giant RYAM, whose high-purity pulp mill in Témiscaming provides the feedstock for Anomera’s neighbouring plant there. RYAM is now an important shareholder of Anomera. 

It will still be a few years before Anomera is turning a profit, Garant acknowledged. Production at the facility in Témiscaming began only in 2022, and sales so far have been modest. CRODA, a major global distributor of specialty ingredients that has the contractual world rights to distribute Anomera’s products for cosmetics, has sent samples to about 800 companies, he said. Now, scientists at those companies are determining how Anomera’s products can be used in their cosmetics, Garant said. 

Diversifying Quebec’s forestry sector 

Meanwhile, Anomera is also focusing on marketing its products in other sectors as well as reducing its production costs through the adoption of more efficient methods.  

The company is also working with the engineering department at Université de Sherbrooke on further developing the applications for concrete and has recently undertaken a three-year, $740,000 project to push forward this initiative, assisted by a significant grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Early tests have indicated that adding cellulose nanoparticles to concrete could reduce the amount of cement needed by 10 per cent, Garant said. Cement is a high emitter of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. 

For Témiscaming Mayor Pierre Gingras, Anomera’s presence is highly welcome, not least because it gives RYAM one more reason to maintain production in his mono-industrial city.  Témiscaming’s motto, “Vive la forêt,” underlines the fact that it was established, and continues to exist, thanks to the forest industry. “If there wasn’t a forest, there couldn’t have been a pulp and paper mill,” Gingras noted. 

And now, Anomera is providing new opportunities for Quebec’s forestry sector, helping to make it not only an industry of the past and present, but of the future. 

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Sunil Jayasuriya
1 month ago

Congratulations, Super impressive achievement on so many fronts – technology, economis, sustainability and social impact. Hopefully, you can broaden your application areas by collaborating with PAPRICAN and Theo van der Ven Group (Mc Gill Chem) and TreeMaTech their start up who are pursuing applications for CNC products.