Merit Functional Foods has begun optimizing production on its new 94,000-square-foot plant-protein processing facility in northwest Winnipeg.
It is likely one of the fastest completions of such a project on record, with the business created and engineering started only 18 months ago.
"It is unheard of for this to happen so quickly,’ said Ryan Bracken, CEO of the company that is a partnership between Bracken and two other Winnipeggers along with Burcon Nutraceuticals, a Vancouver company with deep roots in Winnipeg and Bunge, the U.S.-based global food ingredients and grains company.
While Bracken said it’s in his nature to get things finished as quick as possible, the rapid construction and commissioning of the plant is a market response to intense demand as the plant-protein business has been exploding. For instance, plant-based dairy products now occupy about 15 per cent of the dairy shelves in grocery stores and the variety and product offerings of meat alternatives is growing all the time.
A year ago, long before construction was completed, Merit announced a collaboration with Nestle, the global packaged foods manufacturer. The fact that occurred before any protein was produced is an indication of the demand and the confidence the market has in Merit.
As well, Bracken said the addition of Bunge as an equity partner gave the company instant credibility.
Bracken would not share any details about potential sales with Nestle, but he said the company already has entered into about 240 non-disclosure agreements with food companies.
"Almost every large food and beverage company in the world is working with us right now and evaluating our proteins," he said. "We are very happy about the outlook."
Merit is opening just as Roquette is about to commission its own plant-protein production facility in Portage la Prairie.
While the Roquette plant is much larger — it is the largest pea protein plant in the world — Merit’s will extract protein from both pea and canola seed and will be the only canola protein plant in the world. While it can handle both Prairie crops, the production facility can only handle one at a time.
"This is a great story for Manitoba," Bracken said. "To have both us and Roquette here… it is the future of food and the future of manufacturing."
Although Merit was only formed 18 months ago, Burcon has been developing a proprietary plant protein extraction technology that Merit will use for more than 20 years.
Its founder and CEO, Johann Tergesen, is a former Winnipegger and the company has had an active R & D facility in the city for two decades.
"Burcon is thrilled that Merit Foods has realized this important milestone," Tergesen said. "Having completed the construction and now in the midst of commissioning and optimizing its state-of-the-art facility is an impressive accomplishment during such a challenging time."
Bracken said it will take a few months to finalize production details and customize orders but he figures its proteins could be included among the ingredients in products that will land on grocery store shelves by the third or fourth quarter of this year.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.