Christine Lewington’s three favourite letters are R, O, and I. As a kid growing up in small-town Southern Alberta, she realised running a stable of babysitters was far more profitable and a better use of her time than simply babysitting on her own. That sharp-minded assessment has been her hallmark ever since, including driving her to complete a four-year engineering degree at prestigious Brigham Young University in three years, because the ROI was better.

Several years later, then a single mother of two who had spent the better part of a decade raising her kids, she considered putting her educational credentials to use but discovered that despite her degree, Alberta’s engineering regulatory body, APEGA, demanded she complete an extra year of study at a recognised Canadian university before considering her for the P.Eng. designation. That option was not feasible, so she took a job as an agri-food engineering project manager, where she discovered her true calling. Christine obtained her PMP certification and quickly determined it made no sense to work for a company that farmed out her services—the ROI theme again—so she struck out on her own. Around that time, she met her current husband, with whom she teamed up to run three businesses, while taking on project management contracts and raising her children.

With so much on the go, and wanting the freedom to spend time being a mum, Christine decided to focus full-time on project management, spending 12 years with Pepsi Frito Lay. Eventually her ROI radar kicked in again, and, not wanting to depend on a single source of income, she returned to self-employment. Over the next few years, she took on some of Canada’s biggest food companies as clients, building a knowledge and competencies base that has served her well as project lead of the CAAIN-supported F3: Farm to Factory to Farm: Pea Protein Quality and Traceability, and CEO of the company she founded during COVID, PIP International, whose journey has been almost as interesting and impressive as the work in which she and her team are engaged.

In late 2020, through a series of serendipitous opportunities, Christine found herself signing a global master licensing agreement with the French researchers who developed the protein extraction technology PIP is employing. This state-of-the-art process is under her control, allowing her to commercialise it anywhere in the world. By early 2021, PIP had five employees and a 20-acre Lethbridge site that will eventually house the 200,000 square-foot facility she realised was far too big to serve as a launchpad if PIP were to stay in business. Needing a mid-sized building with scale-up potential, she bought a bankrupt local microbrewery because it was more manageable and had all the piping infrastructure the extraction operation would need. Rather than use the brewery as a proof of concept, however, she decided to make it a fully functional site, allowing her to commercialise at a reasonable initial product volume. Effectively, she went from bench to full market access, gambling on the uniqueness of her offering.

The roll of the dice paid off. The extracted protein is tasteless and not denatured, and it does what it’s intended to do when added to a food, meaning artificial supplements are not needed. Some of North America’s biggest food companies are already clients, and one even offered to buy her entire output, which Christine politely declined, as it would have killed her potential market. But the offer was a strong indication of the product’s quality and market potential.

The protein extraction, however remarkable, is not what CAAIN is supporting. In its first three years of development and operation, PIP has required a $3M investment, in part because Christine added a research layer that forms the basis for the project CAAIN is funding. She was not satisfied with knowing the approximate origin of the peas she buys—they are all sourced through Swift Current’s Monette Farms and some of its Prairies-based subsidiary producers. So, she decided to work with Monette and Calgary-based agri-food software developer Provision Analytics on a traceability backbone that will eventually provide real-time comprehensive data on every bushel of peas PIP purchases. All farms that feed into the Monette collective will be supplied sensors providing data elements such as location, weather, and soil conditions. Each facility’s harvest will be identifiable, a process made easier because Monette acts as a clearing house for everything PIP buys.

The value of this kind of data is obvious. Not only will Christine’s team know where all their raw materials come from, they will be able to match quality to growing conditions and various other factors. Sub-par product will be easy to identify and discard but more importantly, farmers will have data to support their efforts to improve the quality of the peas they grow. Hence the project title—F3: Farm to Factory to Farm. For the first time, there will be a closed loop linking farmer to processor and back to farmer. All parties will have real-time access to data on every aspect of the growing, harvesting, storage, and delivery processes, ensuring consistency and creating a robust accountability platform.

The three-legged partnership is essential to the project’s success. First, there’s the leadership, coordination, management, and quality control provided by PIP. Then there’s the involvement of the superbly run Monette Farms, led by visionary CEO, Darrel Monette, who stretches the definition of the term “agricultural producer” to a level rarely seen in the sector. Finally, there’s the code-writing ability and technical savvy of Provision Analytics. Led by co-founders Erik Westblom and Michael Gibbons, the six-year-old firm, with offices in Calgary and Chicago, develops scalable software solutions for a range of agri-food clients. Individually, the members of this triumvirate are impressive; collectively, the trio is taking traceability in agriculture to a whole new level of accountability and accuracy.

It will take several years to accumulate the critical mass of data needed for the F3 system to have predictive capacity, but some useful data is already available. Christine notes that the CAAIN funding is allowing the partners to take risks that would otherwise be unthinkable, allowing them to remain profitable by providing a safety net that covers capital costs and subcontractors, expenditures that would otherwise represent lost dollars. This support means that despite the surprises that will present themselves along the way, PIP, Monette, and Provision will be able to make necessary adjustments that will allow the data they collect to provide commercial value.

Christine is as enthusiastic about where PIP is today as she is excited to see what the future holds. “We’re going to be collaborating with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Lethbridge College researchers. And while our focus is obviously on pulse crops, there’s potential to apply the eventual technology to the agriculture sector more broadly.” She pauses before concluding, “This project has many moving parts, including the environmental sustainability we are building into our electrical use and heat generation. What’s been great about working with CAAIN is that you guys have allowed us the latitude to pivot when necessary. This kind of R&D rarely progresses in a straight line, and it’s so refreshing to work with a funding partner who allows us the flexibility we need to succeed.”

CAAIN Contribution

Total Project Value

Project Contact
Christine Lewington
PIP International