By working across a variety of sectors, fresh solutions are being developed by engineers at the Mera Group of Companies, especially in converting plant proteins for human consumption.
Heather Quale, P.Geo., P.Eng.
Wayne Goranson, P.Eng.
There is a quote that says the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Wayne Goranson, P.Eng., pursues a different result by looking at what other sectors have done. That interest led him to disruption — before it was commonly recognized — while his wife, Heather Quale, P.Geo., P.Eng,. has nurtured her interest in mentoring and professional development.
“My role is managing and growing the engineering team,” said Quale.
Along with those she recruits in engineering, information technology and economics to work at the Mera Group of Companies, they solve the problems of their clients.
“I’m more on the development side,” said Goranson.
“When you are developing something new, you need a variety of resources. Thank goodness, Mera Development has those resources and I can pull on them as I need them.”
The solutions they devise by working across a variety of sectors are ones that others may not have recognized and definitely didn’t execute. When developing solutions, it is Goranson’s aim to avoid what others have considered for that problem.
“(Some will say) this is how you do it. We look at it differently. I don’t want to know how anyone else is doing it. How would we do it?” said Goranson.
“Early on, before it was a common word, we called ourselves disrupters because we were messing with everyone else’s protocols.”
An example of this was a search for technology to convert plant protein found in grain and pulse crops into something more digestible and palatable for humans — technology Goranson said has been referred to as a “mechanical cow.” This project by one of the companies in the group, Mera Food Group, has seen a huge evolution that continues to this day.
His pursuit of a mechanical cow began in the Caribbean, where he had connections through his oil and gas experience.
As the region sought to diversify its crops, a delegation from there travelled to Saskatchewan, and during their visit, stopped in at Goranson’s family farm in the Weyburn area. A few years later, they reached out the Goransons about replicating what they saw in Saskatchewan. Particularly, growing plant proteins was seen as a more efficient way for humans to obtain protein than through cows.
So, Goranson, along with some engineers and economists, started to work in the Caribbeans to get the new crops growing by building irrigation and electrical infrastructure as well as grain handling, processing and storage.
That experience exemplifies what Goranson heard one of Mera’s senior engineers once explain to some young, Eastern European students visiting the Mera Group offices in Regina. The engineer had been asked why he liked his job. He said,”Because I get to do things that no one else has done before.”
“There is a bit of adventure in some of us with that problem solving”.
Searching the world for solutions
That attitude can be seen in the solution Mera came up with for processing protein-rich crops in a cost-effective and efficient way.
A search resulted in finding a piece of technology that originated in the former Soviet Union’s military complex that could now be used to break down grains and proteins into a beverage or food close to where they were grown.
Animal protein production for human consumption is by far more energy intensive and less efficient in comparison to production of plant proteins. Feeding plant protein to a cow to produce milk is an inefficient use of protein. Plus, a cow uses 10 times the water plants need. Then there are those who are lactose intolerant — which the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research says is about 65 to 70 per cent of the world’s population. However, without processing, humans can only digest a small percentage of beans or pulse crops.
In its original life, the Soviet technology had been used in submarines to dispose of garbage.
“In a submarine, if you throw your garbage out, everyone can see where you are. If you grind it up, they can hear where you are. They were using water to break it down into itty-bitty pieces, which is essentially what we do with the plant protein,” said Goranson.
Once Mera secured the technology, it was a matter of “taking that fundamental, core technology and using a team of engineers to turn it into a reliable, repeatable commercial process. You put a product in one end and something that a human can consume comes out the other end.”
The patented technology developed by Goranson’s team is known as a Hydrodynamic Cavitation Reactor. It relies on a process known as cavitation, which uses water and energy to create microscopic explosions to disintegrate the plant material. This generates heat, which cooks the plant matter so most of it can be digested while ensuring it is flavourless and odourless to make it more appealing to those consuming it. It maintains the nutrition inherent to the plant while addressing a property of it that inhibits an enzyme necessary for the protein of the plant to be digested. This also makes the plant 97 per cent digestible as opposed to 10 per cent without processing.
A Canadian mining company operating in the Dominican Republic had a social obligation in their extraction contract to contribute to a sustainability fund. The company began working with Mera on a project in which local farmers grew soybeans to be processed by Mera into a beverage that would be distributed to local schools. Mera was able to do it utilizing its Hydrodynamic Cavitation Reactor, so a factory in the Dominican Republic was started.
Mera’s work there got the attention of the Canadian Embassy and the United Nations, which asked if Goranson’s team could distribute their protein beverage to political prisoners in Haiti, which shares an island with the Dominican Republic. Then, when Hurricane Matthew hit in 2007, they were tapped again to help in the crisis to feed people in schools with their protein beverage.
Today plant protein foods are gaining popularity across the world. “There is very high-end premium market, people with disposable income searching for healthy alternatives choose such products for health and environmental reasons,” explained Goranson. “Then we have another side of the market, people who choose our products for being a low-cost, efficient delivery (of protein)”.
Bringing their best to Saskatchewan
Back home in Saskatchewan, they have been working on a project with Protein Industries Canada to prove this production and package and distribute the product. Mera Foods had also entered into a partnership with Federated Co-operatives to produce an oat-based beverage which is expected to hit the local market in the coming year.
When the pandemic arrived, suddenly, travel to the Dominican Republic was no longer possible. The manager of the plant became very ill.
It was decided the factory needed to come to Saskatchewan. So, it was dismantled, piece by piece, in a process led by Goranson and another engineer in Saskatchewan who were directing the factory’s administrative assistant in the Dominican Republic — who spoke no English — through the process.
The young woman led a team that took apart all 10,0oo pieces of the factory to send them to Saskatoon.
“Every night, our lead engineer and I would set the tasks for what we need her to do tomorrow,” said Goranson.
In the morning, they would use video conferencing to describe to her what pieces needed to be disassembled, what colour to mark them, which container to put them in and how to document it all.
“It arrived with zero errors or omissions or any problems with customs,” said Goranson.
The factory could be transported because of its size, which was a solution found by referring to other sectors.
“To put a processing facility that can feed 60,000 people in a day, (produce) 20,000 litres in day, in a sea container, everyone said is impossible. But no, it’s not. You go to another sector,” said Goranson.
“You go to people from refineries and from aviation and they have to put a lot of complicated pieces in a small physical area and they have figured out how to do it.”
It wasn’t just the size that mattered. The design did, too. Again, experience in other sectors helped.
“We need to build things and design things with common parts. If you look at our processing machine for the soy, all of the valves are replaceable. … All of the wires, all of the pumps, all of the bearings are of the same specifications.”
“Where did that come from? Our experience in the resource sector where people are drilling oil wells in Siberia and the dessert and all over and you need to be self-sufficient.”
“That’s been one of the blessings in our experience in our company is our customers in so many different sectors.”
That experience came about because Goranson and Quale recognized how to build on their company’s strengths while expanding their connections.
“Before data was cool, we found out we could do a lot if we could get the data in front of people very quickly so they could make informed decisions,” said Quale.
“They know their industry. We know how to use data effectively. Together we team up to solve business problems really quickly and efficiently.”
But it was more than being able to collect and share timely data. She knows engineers graduate with some skills at a fairly equal level, but she is looking for something specific in someone to become a consulting engineer.
“We know that they will be able to do the technical skills and we continue to train and mentor them to develop their skills into a professional level,” said Quale.
“We need people who can communicate and work well with our clients to tease out the information.”
They have purposefully built a team unlike many others.
“Quite often in an engineering company, you will have people of the same background working in the same sector,” said Goranson.
“Ours is a bit more of a potpourri. The group that Heather has pulled in have very dissimilar backgrounds.”
By focusing on collecting and using data, valuing interpersonal skills and building a diverse team, they have been able to push the boundaries of what was possible for their companies. Their approach has taken them and their team from oil and gas into mining, refining, pipelines, power generation, water management and, of course, agriculture and food processing.
“We find it’s really important to start with what we are good at and keep doing that and move that across from industry to industry,” said Quale.
“We recruited people from other industries that helped us to advance capabilities by just applying the same capabilities in one industry into another industry.”
When they don’t have the expertise in their team, they have the connections in the world to find that person who does. Knowing what expertise to seek out is sometimes inspired by ideas their team members aren’t afraid to suggest.
““We love working with young engineers because they come up with new ideas and they don’t know they can’t do certain things. That brings really valuable discussion into the room,” said Quale.
“When you don’t know you can’t do something, it makes so many more things possible,” said Goranson.
A fresh use of existing ideas and practices can be exactly what is needed to create change.
“You pull that industry knowledge across sectors and you can get some good surprises,” said Goranson.
The connections that are formed by an approach like this have taken Goranson and Quale to places and projects they could not have foreseen at the start of their careers and marriage. Before they were wed, while Saskatchewan was in the midst of a drought, the couple visited the Caribbeans as tourists. As they stood on an outlook having a cocktail, Goranson shared a thought on a possible future for them.
“I look out at this beautiful green valley and I offhandedly said to Heather, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have a little farm out there?’”
Years later, within 30 miles of the spot he pointed out, he was working on a farm he helped to develop, which would produce the soybeans they processed using the cavitation technology their company found and developed.
“I can’t say that was part of the career plan. It was just a coincidence.”
Produced by Martin Charlton Communications for APEGS. Original story here.