University competition helped launch Ontario soy food business
A growing Ontario soy food manufacturer can trace its roots back to an entry into a student competition at the University of Guelph 15 years ago.
Brothers Erik and Francis Lo entered a soy-based cream cheese alternative into the Project SOY contest in 1998 and although they didn’t win the competition, their company Flamaglo Foods is now recording annual sales of over $1 million.
Flamaglo, under the brand YoSo, sells dairy and gluten-free soy yogurts, gourmet spreads and dips using Ontario-grown soybeans. They’ve also started expanding outside of soy, introducing a line of coconut yogurts last summer.
Most of their products are found in the refrigerated organic or health food sections of major Canadian retail chains, as well as independent health food stores in Ontario and Quebec.
“All of our products are manufactured exclusively at our production facility in Cambridge, Ontario, where we now have nine employees working with us,” says Francis Lo. “And recently we’ve also introduced our products into the Winnipeg market.”
Erik is the company’s CEO and food scientist and Francis looks after sales and marketing. Both brothers attended the University of Guelph, where Erik completed certificates in food science and dairy technology in addition to his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Waterloo. Francis has a Bachelor of Commerce degree as well as an agri-business MBA from Guelph.
It was during their time at Guelph that they learned about the Project SOY (Soybean Opportunities for Youth) competition for students. The contest encourages students to work individually or in teams to develop new products and marketing strategies for soybeans and awards cash prizes to winners chosen by a panel of judges.
The Lo brothers took part in the 1998 competition, entering a non-dairy spread that was designed to be a cream cheese alternative for vegans or consumers dealing with dairy allergies and intolerances.
“We didn’t win any prizes and frankly, looking back on it, we can understand why. In fact, it was the feedback we got through Project SOY that actually gave us the motivation to perfect the first prototype of our soy spread,” says Lo. “We eventually put together a business plan for our soy spread and set the foundation for our business today.”
The Los are a Project SOY success story that has far exceeded founder Peter Hannam’s original goal for the program. He helped launch the competition in 1996 through his company, First Line Seeds, which focused on soybean seed, new markets and building Canadian soybean exports. At the time, he says, there was little interest in supporting research into new end uses for soybeans; instead, most work focused on new varieties to increase yield and build disease resistance.
“What we needed was a way to raise awareness of the special characteristics of soybeans and how they could be used, as well as raise awareness among university students and the younger generation about the flexibility and adaptability of soy for use in food and non-food items,” explains Hannam. “From that perspective, the program has been phenomenally successful. We take it more for granted now but in those days, there was very little awareness that you could do anything with soybeans other than eat them.”
First Line Seeds – now DEKALB – worked with the University of Guelph to launch the project, and other partners came on board, including Ontario Soybean Growers (now Grain Farmers of Ontario), Soy 20/20, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food (OMAF) and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC). Every year, between 15 and 25 projects are entered at the diploma, undergraduate and graduate levels, ranging from food products to biodegradable mulch film, ceiling tiles, paper and even a surfboard made using soy-based ingredients.
Hannam says he’s impressed with the students’ creativity and enthusiasm every year when he attends the project’s showcase day and speaks with the participants, and the resulting spin-off effect has stimulated a lot of interest in this whole field over the years.
“We didn’t have any expectations when we launched this that there would be a lot of commercialized projects. When I talk to students at the event and ask them what they want to do, several have indicated an interested in pursuing a master’s in some kind of soybean work,” he says, adding that was one of the reasons behind a soybean utilization fund he helped establish at the University in 2000. “There didn’t used to be a lot of careers in this area, but we now see a lot of interest building in research into new products and new markets, so we have been able to impact a lot of careers this way.”
The growing interest in soy uses also helped lead to the establishment of Soy 20/20, an organization that helps stimulate new markets and opportunities for Canadian soybeans with a particular focus on commercialization. Soy 20/20 CEO Jeff Schmalz sees Project SOY as an incubator for talent that will be needed as Canada’s bioeconomy continues to grow.
“Over the years we’ve seen a shift from mostly food-based projects to an increasing number looking at non-food uses for soy,” he says. “This helps students consider careers in the bioeconomy, which is an emerging, untapped market in Canada. There are a lot of established businesses in this field in the U.S. but we want to bring these opportunities to Canada and use Canadian soybeans.”
For the students in Project SOY, Soy 20/20 is the link between their projects and the real world, offering the industry’s perspectives as well as commercialization advice to those interested in pursuing their ideas further.
“What we work on is what’s really possible, what’s going on in the marketplace and providing critical analysis,” says Schmalz. “This is a great thing for Soy 20/20 to be involved in, to help develop that awareness of soybeans and their capabilities. Most people don’t know that anything you can make using petroleum you can make using vegetable oil, and these students are the future of our industry.”
The Lo brothers, too, benefited from support from Soy 20/20, as well as OMAF and AAFC over the years, without which Francis Lo says they would not have been able to establish and grow their business as they have. They’re founding members of the new Canadian Soy Food Marketing Council, which is focused on growing the Canadian soy food industry through collaboration amongst all value chain partners, and remain committed bringing new soy food products to the market.
“As someone who eats soy food every day, I can say we’re still very committed to the soy food category as a manufacturer, “says Lo. “Change is the only constant. I believe consumers are seeking a new generation of soy food that delivers great taste and wholesomeness and as well as the nutrition that soy offers as a complete plant protein.”