Hi-Tech Success: From Sea To Cellulose
A recipient of one of the technology sector’s most sought-after accolades has reinforced the value of teamwork, combining mātauranga Māori with Scion’s scientific excellence and innovation.
AgriSea New Zealand won the coveted NZ Hi-Tech Kamupene Māori o te Tau – Māori Company of the Year Award for 2022 at a gala event in Wellington on Friday. The award, sponsored by Callaghan Innovation, highlights the company’s collaborative work with Scion scientists in developing novel seaweed hydrogels as part of its mission to create a high-value and sustainable seaweed industry in Aotearoa.
AgriSea chief executive Clare Bradley says the award is proof of the benefits that come from combining indigenous knowledge with mainstream science and biotechnology.
“Not only does this award show that indigenous knowledge and science anchored in natural, renewable resources can compete and win against other technology industries, it also highlights the strength that comes from weaving together and respecting different knowledge sets.”
The collaboration between AgriSea and Scion started in 2017 when Clare and Tane Bradley met Scion researchers Dr Marie-Joo Le Guen and Dr Stefan Hill at Matariki X, a symposium that brings Māori innovators and entrepreneurs, and researchers together. A casual conversation about nanocellulose from seaweed waste has led to a productive partnership now spanning five years.
Clare Bradley says collaborating with Scion as an industry partner during the early research phase required AgriSea to take a leap of faith, but one they were keen to explore for the market opportunity to turn seaweed waste from their core business into additional high-value products. Nanocellulose can be used in a range of products, including batteries, adhesives, biomedical supplies, and cosmetics.
The bulk of the world’s supply of nanocellulose is produced using wood pulp treated with harsh chemicals. Drawing on Scion’s wood pulping expertise, the collaboration explored a way to create this versatile polymer from seaweed and kelps, resulting in an environmentally superior product and one that adds economic value to AgriSea’s business and the wider aquaculture industry.
“The concept that we could make crystals out of seaweed was hard for us to compute in the beginning,” she says. “But Stefan and Marie-Joo are such awesome people, and we started a commercial relationship on the back of that.
“Driving us forward has been our aligned values and vision. Scion was clear that they wanted to do the best science they could, and we were clear that we wanted to commercialise the science and develop new products.”
Equally important for AgriSea is the desire to be good kaitiaki (guardians) of the whenua (land) and of the natural resources that are at the heart of their family-owned, Paeroa-based seaweed company, which has provided biostimulants to farmers and growers for more than 25 years.
“If we want to grow a seaweed sector in Aotearoa, we need high-value, unique products from our natural resources. At the same time, we want to be good ancestors for our grandchildren. Designing these products from our current waste stream processes meets both these objectives.”
A Crown Research Institute, Scion is at the forefront of national efforts to transition New Zealand to a circular bioeconomy as a means of tackling climate change and limiting a reliance on products made from fossil fuels.
Dr Stefan Hill, Scion’s portfolio lead for High Value Biorefineries, says research with AgriSea is an exciting example of developing renewable biobased products to replace traditional petrochemical-based products, and providing a path for industry uptake.
“It has been a privilege forScionto support AgriSea's mission to create a high-value and sustainable aquaculture industry – work that continues today.”
“Clare and Tane have been a pleasure to partner with from day one, buying into our vision for what could be achieved by mechanically processing their seaweed to extract nanocellulose, which is then used to make hydrogels for a range of products and industries.”
“Their indigenous knowledge, combined with our science excellence, has resulted in a very authentic and world-leading collaboration.”
During her speech at the Hi-Tech Awards, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern noted the opportunity for New Zealand business to not simply provide the “best technology in the world,” but to deliver the “best technology for the world.”
Clare Bradley firmly believes that AgriSea’s collaboration with Scion achieves that goal.
“Our challenge to businesses now is to talk to more people outside their area of expertise, learn from each other and collaborate more,” she says. “We are a small country, but we can benefit the world by combining our strengths.”
The capability that seaweed nanocellulose has to replace non-renewable nanocellulose and divert waste products from landfill led to a successful scale-up trial that has provided material for further product development. The technology has been licensed to AgriSea to continue the development of hydrogels.