By Natalie Noble
As major pulse processing plants are increasingly seeing the value in setting up shop in southern Alberta, agriculture and economic opportunities are taking off with them. One key player driving change is an engineer who was the only female in her graduating class of 365. Meet Christine Lewington, CEO of Protein Isolate Plant International (PIP), providing premium pea protein isolate to an exploding international customer base, right from the city of Lethbridge.
“PIP is an ag-tech company that is commercializing a novel plant protein extraction process from yellow peas,” says Lewington. “We’re combining groundbreaking and innovative methods, with several cross-industry energy technologies so we can produce at the lowest cost and in the most sustainable way. The result is the best tasting, most affordable pea protein in the world.”
It is a tall order, but Lewington’s got the chops to back it. Over the last 20 years, she has headed up engineering projects for the likes of PepsiCo, McCains and Belectric, lending insight into how to pick the best site for optimal long-term operations.
PIP’s operating pilot facility leads them swiftly into the soon-to-be constructed $150-million processing facility. Both align with Lewington’s key passions: agriculture, technology, environmental impact, social currency and blazing a trail to a better future.
In that spirit, this story really begins in 2006 as Lewington gazed out the window on her way to visit the Panama Canal. “I witnessed two- or three-year-old children and older, swimming in, bathing in, and drinking sewer water,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘what is wrong with our world that this is OK?’ On that day, I made a commitment that at some point in my life I would take my career, gifts and experience, and I would change the scene I had just witnessed. PIP is the tool to do this.”
It took 13 years, but Lewington never let go of her desire to build something better by being different. “I was approached by a couple of companies to build a pea protein extraction facility. I said, ‘OK, but only if we have the best technology,’” she says, describing each partner “dropping $165,000 in a bucket,” their investment being later matched by the government. Next, she was off on a tech mission in search of the best.
She found it in France in 2019. The owner of a tech house and the head scientist with his team had invented a new way to extract protein from pulses, peas in particular. “Over dinner, he asked if I would be interested in commercializing it,” says Lewington.
On Dec. 15, 2020, after a year of technical due diligence, PIP signed an exclusive master licensing agreement to use, own and commercialize the technology. “Fast forward two years and I am now the owner and driver of this vision and going to market is where we’re at today,” says Lewington.
Facility of the Future
Located within Lethbridge’s city limits, PIP’s pilot pea-processing and testing facility is a converted craft brewery. Here, technology touches everything, starting of course with extracting PIP’s patented Ultimate Pea Protein isolate (UP.P) using a targeted reaction that quickly yet gently extracts proteins while keeping their functional properties intact.
Why does that matter? Lewington describes: “Our pea protein comes out looking like a Ping-Pong ball, smooth and perfectly shaped. With other extraction processes, it comes out looking like a damaged golf ball. Every pit, dent, scrape and grass stain on it negatively impacts its taste and texture,” she says. “Historically, pea protein tastes terrible. It’s bitter, it has an aftertaste, bad texture and it’s grainy. UP.P does not have a taste and its texture is smooth.”
These premium qualities make UP.P somewhat of a chameleon. The closer to that perfect Ping-Pong shape, the more companies can use it to make diverse products more likely to succeed in the marketplace. “To put a product on the shelf can cost millions of dollars and it’s causing a crisis in the plant-based industry,” says Lewington. “There’s a second moment of truth manufacturers hope to pass as they realize over 74 per cent of these products are failing on the shelf within six months.”
Regardless of the reason to consume plant-based products—health, lifestyle, marketing hype—if a product doesn’t taste good, most won’t buy it a second time. “Our pea protein gives manufacturers a leading edge because their products can now taste good,” says Lewington. “I’m working with iconic brands that are reformulating their plant-based product lineups with PIP’s protein isolate at the centre of these products. Some are making brand new products they were never able to make before. Because UP.P is highly functional and tasteless, it can be used in many diverse ways, and our client partners can make their products taste however they want.”
It could be a game-changer for the non-dairy world of coffee creamers, plant-based milks and others currently classified as an “indulgent,” meaning they offer little nutritional value. Peas, on the other hand, have a complete amino acid profile, offering up valuable protein levels.
Lewington says UP.P’s solubility, the fact it dissolves and stay dissolved, stabilizes many plant-based products. “Companies can [level up] with our protein in their products because they can now offer a great nutritional profile on their plant-based beverages, cheeses and more,” says Lewington. “We’re going nationwide across the U.S. in the first quarter of 2023 with a global dairy alternative company. They’ve reformulated their on-shelf brands already using our pea protein.”
But that premium product does not come at a premium price. PIP can keep it affordable thanks to all the tech innovations they have embraced, especially when it comes down to the facility’s energy efficiency. “We are doing things with 30 per cent less energy than the standard processes,” says Lewington. “This gives us the operational edge, because we don’t spend as much to make our product.”
Of course, with Lewington’s desire to do things better when it comes to the environment and leading a savvy business, there is not a worry all the byproduct of pea protein extraction is going to waste. “One of the top barriers to entry into the wet extraction process is the significant amount of starch and fibre created. The pea is up to 25 per cent protein; the other 75 per cent is starch and fibre, to make it simple. We estimate that 29 semi-truckloads of starch and fibre are needed to ship out of our large-scale facility each day.”
What do you do with all that starch and fibre? Being in feedlot alley, most ships out for cattle feed. But PIP’s designed to disrupt this. Its starch and fibre output is destined somewhere new. In an agreement with a U.S. company, the byproducts will become plant-based food packaging. “We’re taking our starch and fibre immediately off our wet processing line and directing it into a new process. We now don’t have to separate, dry and package it. This saves us a lot of money from the energy savings alone,” says Lewington. “We’ll have pea protein going out one door and our plant-based packaging containers going out another while 100 per cent of our peas are used inside our plant.”
The Lethbridge Advantage
This spring, heavy construction will begin on PIP’s new larger facility, set on 20 acres inside the city of 100,000. On top of hiring 40 people for the pilot facility over the next months, the new facility will create 100 new jobs by early 2024. Those are just direct hires. More than 300 construction jobs will contribute to the economy, as well. Lewington’s plan includes even more direct hires in 2025.
PIP will process around 126,000 annual tonnes of yellow peas and support more than $110 million each year in pea contracts for local and regional farmers.
Why Lethbridge? For Lewington it is crystal clear, and not just because it’s her old stomping grounds as she was raised in nearby Raymond. First, it’s location, location. “Lethbridge is in the heart of ag,” she says. “And we have yellow peas grown in great abundance.”
It also helps that the city has set the stage to welcome big business. “They had already prepared the infrastructure, so I was able to buy 20 acres of heavy industrial zoned land,” she says. “A facility of this size requires consistent and reliable energy sources from power, water and natural gas, as well as wastewater service and transportation access.”
Being inside city limits is advantageous, too. The plant is less than 60 seconds away from fire and EMS, which keeps insurance costs down.
Up there with the need for supply and infrastructure, are people. Heavily ag-focused, both the University of Lethbridge and Lethbridge College are huge assets in their provision of qualified talent. Skilled workers are also available. “There are 120 food processing facilities between Lethbridge and Taber, so I can gain highly skilled workers locally,” says Lewington. “My access to workers, and ability to offer them a great job inside city limits, is a huge advantage for PIP. We think about how to support our new immigrant workers, those who don’t drive or would rather take public transit to work, while having more access to housing than they would in some smaller towns nearby.”
Other pluses on the list: proximity to AAFC’s Lethbridge Research and Development Centre; a municipal government agency working to make regulatory processes work for business; upcoming twinning of Highway 3 opens access to PIP’s Saskatchewan partners; and, the present airport upgrades to encourage more flights.
The location also sets the foundation for new partnerships, which of course begins with nearby pea producers. “Our farming partnerships are huge,” says Lewington. “We haven’t had to go out and seek to fill contracts yet, as anyone who is interested has filled our needs so far.”
One large-scale farm in Saskatchewan will act as PIP’s front-end pea supply and manager for qualified farmers, ensuring spec peas and negotiating timely arrival at the facility.
Also critical was the funding support from the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP), provided by the Alberta government. “The timing and amount were key to unlocking our ability to keep momentum and order long-lead equipment, right at a time PIP needed that funding,” says Lewington. “We would be a year behind where we’re at right now without that government support.”
While she has come so far, Lewington’s career still holds similar themes to those earlier days. Where she began her career in a room full of men, as a CEO, the representation is similar. “With regards to raising capital, less than three per cent of venture capital funding, maybe even as low as 1.8 per cent, goes to women founders and CEO-run companies. It has been very difficult to raise money, let alone raise money for an innovative ag-tech company,” says Lewington. “What did I do to get the funding I’ve raised? My investors see my passion, how hard I work and the different perspective I bring to business.”
She still carries her commitment to do better for those Panamanian children playing in the sewer water. “Some of the water innovations we’re using and proving here, I’m going to give for free to these communities so they can have clean drinking water. I have a granddaughter; she’s everything to me. We need to do things better,” says Lewington. “I’m blazing a trail to bring the best protein at an affordable cost to all corners of the earth, at the same time, using some of these other really cool innovations to positively impact the world.”
In that quest, it’s no surprise innovation will be top of mind when Lewington attends Ag-Expo. “We’ll be looking forward to seeing what’s advancing in regenerative farming practices. We will be looking at new ag equipment suppliers,” she says, adding her biggest focus will be on innovative digital companies as her own plant is being completely digitized in preparation to be AI-process-oriented to optimize its production line. “At Ag-Expo, I can’t wait to see any ag innovation we haven’t heard about yet, and I’ll be talking to farmers to see if there’s any advancements they’re seeing on farms when it comes to regenerative ag practices and water conservation.”