When most of us think of fermentation, we think of yeast turning sugars into alcohol. Fermentation, however, is just one example of a biological processes where microorganisms convert a substance into a desirable product. There are many other products that can be made and in some cases the product can be the microorganism itself. Either way, these bioprocesses are complex and rely on precisely calibrated conditions to obtain the best results.

That's where InnoTech Alberta's fermentation plant comes in.

For the past 30 years, scientists at InnoTech Alberta, a wholly owned subsidiary of Alberta Innovates, have been helping companies across Canada and the world optimize and scale up biological processes, making products that include biopesticides, probiotics, soil inoculants and more. The facility in Edmonton's south is home to fermentation tanks from 16 to 10,000 L- the largest in public ownership in North America. But it's not just the size of its fermenters that's impressive.

InnoTech's Fermentation Plant at the Edmonton Research Park.

"We call it our Lego plant," says Janet Marowitch, the team lead for InnoTech's fermentation group. While traditional fermentation facilities have permanent metal piping connecting their fermenters, InnoTech's facility uses flexible transfer lines that can be rearranged, allowing them to connect any tank to any other in the facility. That means they can find the absolute best configuration to conduct a process, rather than having to fit a process to the plant.

That flexibility is complimented by the expertise of the facility's 12-person operating team of scientists, lab technologists and plant operators. When companies approach InnoTech for assistance, they've usually created a process that works at "bench-scale." The challenge is that scaling up a fermentation process isn't as simple as just doubling a recipe.

"We had one client come to us who was using V8 juice in their bench formulation," says Marowitch, and while that might work in small quantities, you can't fill an industrial-sized tank with 10,000 litres of vegetable juice from the grocery store.

Often, companies find that their attempt to grow their product stalls, and that they can't successfully grow it past that 15-litre mark. InnoTech's fermentation team identifies the problems, corrects them, and is then able to manufacture the product at commercial scales. In one case, Marowitch and her team were able to take a soil inoculant that a company was struggling to scale to 20 litres and grow it to 10,000 litres within just four months.

Jake Burlet, the CEO of CanBiocin, an Alberta-based producer of probiotic supplements for pets, credits InnoTech with helping the company secure investment. After InnoTech successfully produced its probiotic mixture at 300 L, the company announced a successful round of funding. "Anybody that's considering writing a cheque to support market expansion wants to have some measure of certainty that you can actually deliver on your ability to produce, and InnoTech helped us answer that question," he says. The company is now working to develop probiotic supplements for additional species and is eyeing expansion to European markets.

Given the fermentation plant's stellar results, it's not surprising that the facility is often fully booked, and is in continuous operation aside from breaks required for essential maintenance.