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New Ara Research Hub Gets Funding To Help Bioplastic Startup Kelpn

The new ‘research hub’ at Ara has just gained a significant grant to begin work on the best chemical composition of a biomaterial alternative made from seaweed. The Institute launched the ‘Research Hub’ at the beginning of the year, a development which lets businesses tap into the Institute’s R & D expertise, with particular focus on ICT, engineering, and laboratory science.

Ara’s Dr. Grant Bennett, Programme Lead for Lab Science, has been interested in probiotics, food safety and using bio-waste to create new materials for a number of years. He will be working with start-up ‘Kelpn’ to produce sustainable biomaterials from seaweed. This aims to create a material that has the many useful qualities to impact the packaging and biomaterial space - such as being watertight, deformable, and hygienic- while also being able to break down in the environment without the need for special treatment.

Abel Goremusandu, the founder of Kelpn, is currently based at Te Ōhaka, Ara’s Centre for Innovation and home to one of the region’s most successful start-up incubators. His company, which was founded in 2019, through MPI initiatives will be one of Ara Research Hub’s first official customers.

Industry and start-ups such as Kelpn that are in need of help with research can now make use of Ara’s applied research expertise, facilities and student contributions through the ‘Research Hub’ - a service now more readily accessible given Ara’s new status as an IRD Approved Research Provider, which unlocks the R&D tax incentive for qualifying businesses and projects.

Abel says "Having Ara researchers such as Dr. Grant onboard has been a major breakthrough as Kelpn begins the development of its prototype formulation and a huge step forward for the company. Having an expert actively working to get the product - a potentially very significant product - firmly on its way to commercialisation is exactly what I had hoped would happen this year and the funding we have received has also boosted that quite a bit. What I like about the Research Hub is the focus on getting things practically done; it’s not about ticking boxes or getting headlines, it’s trying to get products on the shelves."

Ara researchers are highly motivated to work productively with industry to turn new ideas into commercially viable initiatives or improve existing products or services. This process may involve the resolution of design and technical issues or, more broadly, the application of new practices or systems. The Hub also has a strong focus upon generating ideas for the integration of sustainability principles into everyday operations - as its work with Kelpn demonstrates - but its efforts are all ultimately designed to deliver tangible commercial - and learning - benefits.

One of Ara’s most widely-integrated features is the student access to ‘work-integrated learning’, which is a highly-efficient way to develop students’ practical abilities, as well as to ensure they’re fully conversant with current industry practices and cultures. The Research Hub is well-placed to facilitate this process for degree and diploma students undertaking industry projects or internships as part of their course requirements, by helping to find industry partners with research or project needs and pairing them with the right students.

With funding for vital research for Kelpn now in place, the Research Hub has been able to tangibly demonstrate how its collaboration with Te Ōhaka can work to the benefit of all concerned. The ongoing synergy between Ara and Te Ōhaka works to deepen the connections between Ara students and academics, industry and the innovation start-up ecosystem, which means that learners gain exposure not just to established industry leaders but also to the fast, agile culture and methods of start-up businesses.

Dr. Bennett says of his work for Kelpn "Finding the right formulation for the Kelpn product could be New Zealand’s answer to renewable biomaterial alternatives that don’t require food crops or massive inputs of resources such as water."

While teams in Israel (a country with water scarcity issues), China, India and the UK are currently investigating the best ways to turn seaweeds and algae into plastic alternatives, there are a number of different possible approaches to the problem. Assisting Kelpn to find the best formulation for New Zealand’s native seaweed species and a cost-effective, sustainable way to manufacture would be a big step forward.

Dr. Michael Shone, Head of Ara’s Research Office says "If Ara researchers, working with a passionately committed start-up founder such as Abel, can help to create a biomaterial that’s strong enough and that can be created at a low enough cost on an industrial scale, we could find ourselves entering a new age in which biodegradable materials could finally start seriously replacing petroleum-based products. This is the kind of work that the Research Hub was designed to do; collaborating with industry to turn great ideas, inventions and practices into reality."

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