Even if you’re not spooning sugar into your morning coffee, you’re likely eating or drinking something sweetened. From our desserts to salad dressings and even yogurt, sugar can be found on products on almost every shelf in your local grocery store.
But while it sweetens our meals, sugar production is taking a heavy toll on the environment. The demand for arable land for sugarcane production is leading to significant deforestation, impacting the people and animals that call that land home. Silt and fertilizer runoff from sugarcane fields also causes damage to sea life, including endangered coral reefs along the Florida coast. Sugar production also requires a massive amount of water — 213 gallons of water for a pound of refined sugar.
If your Tim Hortons order is a double-double, that’s almost 18 gallons of water to sweeten your coffee. Changing this means not only changing how sugar is produced but looking at new environmentally sustainable sources.
From hobby to idea
SilvaSugar founder Scott Oldewening isn’t your typical entrepreneur. A lawyer by trade, Oldewening worked for a number of companies before starting a land acquisition company and leading its management team. That company was acquired in 2021, and Oldewening started to research maple syrup production as a hobby after helping to close the acquisition.
“Land acquisition wasn’t my passion, but I supplied a skill set that was critical to building up that business. With a break, I thought back to planting trees throughout British Columbia when I was younger. I love the outdoors — trees in particular — so I thought I’d take a break and dabble with maple syrup as a hobby,” he said.
Oldewening’s definition of a hobby differs from the average person's. For example, he said when he buys a new video game, he reads the game’s manual front to back before picking up the controller and pressing buttons.
“I did the equivalent of that with maple syrup. I didn't just tromp around in the bush and drill holes in trees, collect sap, and boil it. I did a lot of reading and asked questions like why trees produce sap and is the industry doing everything it can do to be as efficient as possible,” Oldewening said.
Innovating the maple bush
Instead of starting a maple syrup hobby, Oldewening created a maple syrup research and development shop to explore and test ideas based on his research. Maple syrup production is traditionally a conservative industry, with innovations far and few in between. Reverse osmosis to remove 75 to 90% of the sap’s water content before the boiling step was introduced in 1946. Vacuum systems were added to help speed up sap collection in the 1960s. There’s been little significant change since then, according to Oldewening.
“Since then, they've just been refining the machinery. They still use a modern version of a big kettle where you place it on a fire, and you boil until you've removed enough water that you've got syrup. There is not much experimentation going on in the forest, which is where we get our raw materials. The industry takes it as a given that this is your source for the raw materials — and that's that,” he said.
Today, 80 percent of the world’s sugar comes from sugarcane, with the rest from sugar beets. Oldewening wants to change this by tapping a new source — the maple bush.
“My vision is to harvest the world's sugar from trees. Right now, that sounds wild, but we’re getting our sugar from sugarcane today, and that industry is a significant source of pollution. Sugarcane is basically the worst possible way for the world to get sugar,” Oldewening said.
He added that the sugar industry is heavily subsidized to keep sugar costs low. With innovations in collection and processing, Oldewening said that the price of sugar from trees could be brought down to compete with sugarcane-sourced sugar. But the real benefits, he said, are environmental.
“When you pull sugar out of a maple tree, you don't have to harvest the tree. You don't have to cut the tree down. It stays in place, grows, and pulls more carbon out of the air for the next year as it grows. We can make sugar production a truly carbon-negative industry,” he said.
Bringing the vision to life
Over the last two years, Oldewening has completed numerous field tests to validate his ideas. These tests included expanding from maple trees to include birch trees in syrup production.
“I discovered that when you deploy my technologies on birch trees, you can get nine times as much sap out of birch trees as the industry currently does. We’re also using different equipment than the traditional evaporator pans to make the entire production line electrified,” Oldewening said.
Bringing these innovations to market takes capital, which brought Oldewening to the Accelerator Centre.
“In this market, it's tough to get financing. Initially, I went to the Accelerator Centre because they can connect you to financing networks and help you with grants. But then I started speaking with all of the mentors. In every conversation I had with them, I carried away something unexpected and beneficial,” he said.
One critical area that the Accelerator Centre mentors helped Oldewening understand is the vital importance of customer interviews.
“I'm one of those entrepreneurs who come in super product-focused. I’m trying to make the perfect product that everyone will want to buy because it's so amazing. I've learned through the mentorship sessions that I need to reach out to target customers and get feedback so I am building something they want to buy. That helped me narrow my focus. Doing that makes the business much more attractive to getting financed as well,” Oldewening said.