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Cawthron breaks into potential multi-million dollar market


Until 12 noon Saturday April 14th

Cawthron breaks into potential multi-million dollar market

New Zealand’s largest independent research organisation, Nelson-based Cawthron Institute, has broken into a new and lucrative export market that promises rich returns for the country.

Cawthron Acting Chief Executive, Daryl Wehner says the Institute has managed to extract and sell minute amounts of complex organic compounds sourced from algae to an international market for significant prices.

“Our sales over the first nine months have exceeded a quarter of a million dollars and we have several large orders already placed awaiting delivery.”
The compounds, natural toxins produced by algae, often found in food such as shellfish, are necessary for research and other high value products, including pharmaceuticals, making them of special interest to scientists working in these fields, as well as regulatory bodies.

Cawthron Institute is one of only a handful of organisations worldwide with the capability to produce these rare naturally occurring compounds to the market.

“Our process, though, is unique in that we are the only ones able to link the whole process from beginning to end – culturing and producing compounds from our own algal collection prior to extraction and purification, and further synthesis.”

Daryl Wehner says this emerging market provides a great opportunity, not only for Cawthron but also for New Zealand, especially once the potential for pharmaceutical development for the treatment of diseases is explored.

“We have spent 15 years developing our science and expertise in this field, initially to ensure the safety of the New Zealand seafood industry, and now we have an opportunity to convert this capability into unique, high value, highly sought after compounds.

“Any product that sells for about 50,000 times the price of gold would have to be the ultimate in New Zealand’s search for differentiated high value exports.”
Cawthron recently sold one milligram of an extracted natural compound, equivalent in volume to three grains of salt, to a European country for 3,000 EURO or NZ$5,500 and 10 milligrams of another compound to the USA for over NZ$45,000.

A level teaspoon full of these compounds is worth several million dollars.

Cawthron’s Laboratory Services Manager, Nico Van Loon says because the compounds are present in very small amounts in the algae, compared to the likes of omega 3 fatty acids which are present in relatively large concentrations, extracting them is technically very difficult – “very much akin to finding a needle in a haystack.”

But he says the potential returns could be phenomenal with sales to date solely in response to customer enquiries.

“We had initially intended to investigate the worldwide demand for these compounds but preliminary conversations with potential customers have already produced more demand than we can cope with at the moment.”

Daryl Wehner says Cawthron is now considering what capital investment may be needed to enable the Institute to rapidly expand the range of compounds it can provide to customers and to establish wider markets.

“It is still early days in terms of this new, but clearly lucrative, market opportunity but we are confident we have the skill and ability to make our mark. While we have only purified a few compounds from a small number of algal species to date – once we start looking seriously there is no end to the possibilities for producing and extracting others.”

Cawthron’s work with algae is already internationally recognised.

The Institute maintains New Zealand’s algae collection and its algae library was used to rebuild some of the American collection destroyed in the New Orleans floods several years ago.

Dr Tim Harwood, one of Cawthron’s leading algal experts, was recently awarded a research grant to work with Japanese scientists to investigate a rare toxic algae that bloomed in Wellington Harbour - the first time it appeared anywhere in the world.

Cawthron also used its expertise in this field to identify the toxin killing dogs on the beaches in Auckland some two years ago. It is now extracting and purifying similar toxins for use by laboratories overseas to assist them in identifying toxins that may be occurring in their environment.


Cawthron Institute is New Zealand’s largest independent research organisation.

For over ninety years Cawthron Institute has quietly but proudly gone about its role of using science to help shape New Zealand’s future. In the process, it has built a national and international reputation for innovation, scientific rigour, independent thinking and depth of knowledge in applied science.

The Institute has a complement of highly qualified laboratory professionals and field scientists who are constantly putting their ideas to the test in both the laboratory and rugged outdoor environments.

In difficult debates, Cawthron’s impartial, independent voice of reason often provides the pathway to solving complex environmental issues. It encourages fresh thinking in all areas, fostering scientists with enquiring minds who are prepared to step outside conventional thinking to find solutions.

Cawthron collaborates with the best in New Zealand and the world. It explores the boundaries of new science in areas such as harnessing micro algae to produce bioactives and other high value products.

Cawthron scientists are in intimate contact with nature’s cleverness and sense of balance. Not surprisingly, they have a strong desire to achieve similar worthy objectives in the world that nature shares with humans.

The unique blend of sensible, progressive science that stamps Cawthron Institute has created a long and distinguished heritage. There’s little doubt that this blend will be equally powerful in providing answers to tomorrow’s many scientific and environmental challenges.

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