Persevering to achieve success: Q&A with Shabnam Sanaei, director of bio-innovation and technology at Canfor
By Sukanya Ray Ghosh
Who: Shabnam Sanaei
Role: Director of Bio-Innovation and Technology
Lives in: Montreal, Quebec
Years in industry: 14
Shabnam Sanaei is fascinated by multitude of products that can be made from wood. As the director of bio-innovation and technology at Canfor, she focusses on identifying the most promising bioproducts and valorizing them further to strengthen the company’s sustainable future.
Pulp & Paper Canada: How and why did you come to join the forest industry
Shabnam Sanaei: I worked in the oil and gas industry for a few years before joining the forestry and pulp and paper industry. While in the oil and gas sector, at a certain point, I decided that I wanted to do something more environmentally friendly and have contribution in making more sustainable products. I became interested in renewable energy and biomaterials.
The more that I thought about it, the more interested I became in forestry-based bioproducts and joining this industry.
In 2010, I started working as a consultant helping forestry companies to identify the right bioproducts for their business. Then, I joined Domtar where I worked as a biomaterials project manager. Now, since January 2021, I’ve had the pleasure to be a part of the Canfor family.
Looking back, I would say that my journey began when I started my Ph.D. at Polytechnnique Montreal in chemical engineering where I studied biorefinery strategies and worked on sustainability assessment of integrated forest biorefinery opportunities and strategic decision making. The deeper I got, the more I realized that the tools I had developed could be useful for the forestry industry enabling them to identify the most promising bioproduct opportunities in the context of their business. So, I decided to join the sector to make that happen.
P&PC: What has your learning curve been like in this industry?
SS: For me, the learning curve has been gradual. I started as a PhD student in a four-month internship with Domtar, working on a project for one of their mills. Then, I joined the company as a post-doctorate fellow for two years after which I became a research and development scientist, and then a project manager taking care of bioproducts initiatives.
At that time, I was involved on the technology side, figuring out the type of bio-products that made sense and the kinds of technologies that would be the right fit for the company.
I collaborated with various third parties, forming partnerships with other companies, which was my start into the business development side of bio-products. It’s a part of my job that I really like.
P&PC: So, what is your day-to-day like at Canfor as the director of bio-innovation and technology?
SS: Every day is so exciting here. Canfor’s bio-innovation team is trying to identify the most promising bio-based solutions and bioproducts opportunities for the future of the company. We’re exploring new bioproducts from forestry resources, so, it’s all about thinking strategically about the future, about innovative bioproducts, and emerging technologies.
At the same time, it is very challenging. Woody biomass can be converted into hundreds of products, so, we almost have too many exciting options on the table. The challenge is identifying which ones are the best fit for Canfor.
And it’s not always straightforward to make these decisions, but we follow a systematic approach to do so.
We’re always learning about new technologies, new products, new applications, and the start-ups that are actively working in the field. So, our evaluation tool is a living process.
P&PC: What are some major projects that you have worked on? Any particular favourites?
SS: You know, it’s tricky to answer this question, because most of the interesting projects are completely confidential at the moment.
One of the projects that is of more interest to me, is what we call wood-to-wood concept. We extract a component from wood, make a bio-product out of it and apply it on wood again. So, it’s a wood-to-wood concept.
When I started reading about the concept, almost every article included the name of one expert. I realized that person was key to further developing the idea. I made a cold call and he said that this idea was a good one. He proposed that we work together.
At the beginning, the idea seemed to be too conceptual and it was challenging to get everyone onboard, but I did it because I believed in the idea.
We started with a small-scale bench trial and made just some grams of that material. We tested and it worked. After that, I approached one of the most world-renowned brands out there and they showed interest in our developed bioproduct. They asked me to go to their facility and we tested it together and it worked well. The project reached the pilot stage. It was so interesting for me to be able to take that concept to a practical level.
At Canfor, I am also getting involved in Arbios Biotech, our joint venture partnership with Licella in Australia, which is designed to convert woody biomass into sustainable bio-oil for use as a low carbon transportation fuel (biofuel) There is a potential to valorize it into more value-added products, such as biochemicals and biomaterials. It is exciting to think about.
P&PC: Throughout your time in this industry, are there any particular challenges that you have faced?
SS: One of the most difficult challenges that anyone who is working in an innovation field faces is convincing a risk-averse industry to go after something new. As you know, the forestry industry is well established and has been converting woody biomass into pulp and paper products for years. So, it can be challenging to jump both feet into emerging opportunities like bio products. But it’s great to see that more and more forestry companies are investing in this field.
To overcome this challenge, communication is key. We need to be patient and confident, ready to answer questions and provide more information. While there’s a risk, the potential for reward is huge, and I know that we’ll see benefits in the future and for the long term.
P&PC: What do you love the most about being a part of the forestry sector?
SS: My favourite part is wood itself. It’s like a magical piece of biomass that has three main components, and from each component, you can make hundreds of products. It can be challenging to decide which ones are right for us. But that’s the beauty of our business. When you’re working in innovation-oriented activities, you should have something to keep you coming up with novel ideas to address existing gaps. Wood enables us to be innovative.
If I think about the most interesting activity that I do, its about contributing to building the future of company with more value-added sustainable products. It’s wonderful to be involved in the day-to-day business aspects as well. That, in my opinion, is fantastic. We should not forget that not all forestry companies necessarily support these kinds of risky investments. The top management at Canfor are very open-minded and supportive.
P&PC: What has it been like as a woman in this industry?
SS: To be honest, I’ve never ever had any bad experiences working in this industry. There have been several instances where in key meetings and I was the only female sitting at the table. It was kind of difficult to talk about ideas. But I noticed that as soon as talked about my opinions and ideas freely, I received overall support.
I do recall one challenging situation with an older collaborator from a consulting company. He was 82 years old and from a culture different from North America. Often, I’m younger than collaborators/consultants working with me. So, the challenge I had was that every time I asked him questions, he would look at others to respond. He’d also have difficulty sending me reports, even though he was technically reporting to me. Understanding that it was coming from a difference in cultures, I could well manage the situation eventually.
P&PC: Any anecdotes you would like to share about any moments in career that have stayed with you?
SS: There is one that I remember very well. I was putting forward an idea that everyone felt was too conceptual. They felt that I was approaching it like a university-setting. However, since I was confident that it would work, I had perseverance pursuing it.
My company, at the time, hired a third party to review all of its bioproduct initiatives and rank its top three. The project that everyone considered conceptual, my project, was ranked as number one. That report was a big win for me. It took about three years to take the product from concept stage to the final level. It was difficult, but in the end rewarding.
P&PC: What do you see in your future in this industry?
SS: What I like is the learning. There are tons of things out there about this industry that I don’t know about yet. I really want to continue learning every day. And I want to get more involved in the business side of things, to use my technical skill to make our business more successful. Having a meaningful contribution in making a brighter future for our business and our industry in general is what I want the most.
P&PC: What message do you have for women who want to build careers in this industry?
SS: When I decided to join the forestry sector, my friends told me that I was joining an old industry, one without a bright future.
In contrary, I saw the forestry industry as very futuristic as its already a biorefinery platform that converts woody biomass into renewable materials. From there, we can take it steps further to valorize existing products into even more value-added sustainable bioproducts.
There’s a wrong perception about our industry. Any time that I have a chance to talk to young people about this, I try to change that wrong perception.
My second message would be, if you join an industry that is not facing any challenges, you don’t have enough opportunity to contribute towards its improvement and morphing into future state. Here, I can see how my contributions would help Canfor, as well as the industry and consumers.
This post is part of CFI, Pulp & Paper Canada and Canadian Biomass’ Women in Forestry series celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. Find more content here and follow us on social media with the hashtags: #WomeninForestry, #IWD2022 and #BreaktheBias.
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