Université de Moncton (UdeM) professor Dr. Marc Surette serves as the New Brunswick Innovation Research Chair in Biosciences. His research on omega-3 fatty acids has recently led to the commercialization of a new nutritional oil, one whose omega-3s are sourced from plants rather than fish.
“We wanted to find a plant source of omega-3s, one that more closely resembled those found in fish. Market demand on fish has been increasing, while supplies have decreased. Sustainability is a huge factor.”
After just over a decade in the U.S., the Moncton native returned home in 2004 to take on the role of Canada Research Chair in Cellular Lipid Metabolism. As luck should have it, the 10 year lifespan of that position allowed him to move seamlessly from one chair to another.
Opportunities NB (ONB) spoke to Dr. Surette about his recent work, and the advantages of conducting his research in New Brunswick.
ONB: Let’s begin with the work that led to Nature’s Crops Ahiflower® Seed Oil.
Surette: Nature’s Crops is an agricultural company that grows plants on a contract basis. So companies approach them saying they need X amount of a particular oil, they then give contracts to farmers to produce crops that provide that oil.
I first contacted their CEO nine years ago. I was familiar with them from my time in North Carolina where their parent company, Technology Crops Inc. (TCI), is headquartered. I had interest in growing a new crop that would contain omega-3 fatty acids resembling those in fish oils. They had some plants they were thinking of developing that had never been used in agriculture for this type of project, so there was mutual interest in collaborating.
When they began looking at Atlantic Canada, a region they’d never considered, they saw it as a climate ideal for some of those crops — relatively warm summer days, cool nights, and not nearly as hot as parts of the U.S. They saw this as a region that could not only develop the new crop I was proposing, but a place to establish themselves in order to grow more of their existing crops.
We received funding via the Atlantic Innovation Fund (AIF) which allowed Technology Crops to open an office in Atlantic Canada, and build an oil processing plant, the first of its kind in the region.
ONB: This led to additional research in Moncton as well. Tell us about that.
Surette: There were two sides to that. One involved understanding the agricultural requirements of growing this wild plant [Bugglosoidies arvensis]; it’s a complex process. We also wanted to look at the health benefits produced, and how the oil acts in the body. We received a second AIF grant to keep moving forward and that’s where we are today. The Ahiflower® Seed Oil is now on the market in both the U.S. and Europe, and it’s been approved for use in Canada so expect it on shelves here soon.
ONB: There were clinical trials done here in New Brunswick as part of this, isn’t that right?
Surette: Yes, we’ve done a couple of human clinical trials, and are thus far still the only ones to have given it to humans for study. Trial results were great; not only were we able to publish the results but it helped with Nature Crop’s marketing of the oil. Their marketing partners were interested but had been asking about human data, now they had it. That New Brunswick research helped commercialize the oil.
ONB: Let’s talk about the NBIF research chairs. Can you tell us how that initiative works?
Surette: The chair receives funding that allows them to devote their time to research. As a university professor, you’re expected to teach as well as research; a chair sort of ‘buys out’ your teaching time. With it the University can hire someone to pick up your teaching duties so you can devote yourself to research.
Lots of companies have tech problems and/or want to develop a new product, but they don’t have a lot of in-house R&D resources. Our aim is to give those companies a hand. My chair is in Biosciences, so I’m focused on companies wanting to develop biological-based products.
My goal is to let New Brunswick industry know that we have an expertise here. We have funding that will allow you to look at your product or problem without having to dump a bunch of money into it early on.
ONB: What do you see as benefits of operating in New Brunswick?
Surette: Moncton is a small city in the grand scheme but it has plenty to offer, whether you like the arts or outside activities. It’s a great place to live.
It’s still a fairly small research community here still, but the fact that it’s smaller means people really look out for each other. There’s a lot of collaboration. If you have a problem, just pick up a phone, and you’re able to get a colleague who can help pretty quickly. If you need help from the province it is possible to get the ear of a Minister, once you get some big projects going. It’s not a cutthroat environment at all; I’ve seen some cutthroat environments, it’s not pleasant.
We have programs here for entrepreneurs with a product with real commercial potential, there’s money available here for them and not enough people realize that. It’s really advantageous for people who do research with a more commercial slant to it. There are resources here that may not be available everywhere.
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