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Distinguished Honour For Callaghan Innovation Scientist

The man behind the process that has led to some world-leading Kiwi food, beverage and nutraceutical products has joined an elite list of revered New Zealand scientists.

Dr Owen Catchpole

Owen Catchpole was this week made a Fellow of the Royal Society Te Apārangi, an honour that recognises distinction in research, scholarship and knowledge advancement. Only a handful of people are made Fellows each year and it typically takes several years after first being nominated to achieve the honour.

Dr Catchpole is the first scientist to be made a Fellow from Callaghan Innovation in its 10-year history, an achievement he says recognises the commitment and investment into research and development by Callaghan Innovation and its predecessor organisations.

Dr Catchpole has a background in chemical engineering and pioneered the establishment of “supercritical extraction” in New Zealand – now used extensively to make products like green shell mussel oils, hop extracts and hemp/cannabis extracts.

The Auckland-based scientist began his career at the former Department of Scientific and Industrial Research where he established R&D capability in supercritical extraction.

Supercritical extraction is a process that most commonly uses carbon dioxide at high pressure to extract natural products from biological materials which can then be used to make high-value products such as dietary supplements, functional foods, flavours and fragrances.

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“It was pretty much a blank canvas at the DSIR. One of the very first projects I was involved with was trying to make low cholesterol meat products and cholesterol-free butter because at the time cholesterol was seen as public health enemy number one,” Dr Catchpole says.

“We didn’t have any equipment and hardly any knowledge aside from brief bits we’d read in scientific journals. My job was to build some equipment, learn all about it and then try and come up with some processes.”

As time progressed and knowledge advanced, the team of two that started out also grew.

“We built some pilot-scale equipment and then finally a larger scale plant. We leased that to a New Zealand company which then became the first industrial-scale plant in New Zealand to use the technology.”

Today there is a large extraction plant in Nelson making hop extracts for beer and producing Lyprinol from Green Shell mussels – an extremely high-value product costing about $20 per gram along with other smaller plants making marine extracts, cannabinoids, pyrethrum and other products.

Over the years Dr Catchpole has also led a research group for six years, is on the Board of the Bioresource Processing Alliance (BPA), was seconded to Manuka Health to work on manuka honey and propolis products and these days is the team leader for Callaghan Innovation’s food processing technologies team which develops innovative ways to make high-value food ingredients.

He and his team are currently working on trying to recover value from the byproducts of primary processing that would otherwise be thrown away as part of the BPA. He is also part of a multi-agency project called Cyber-Marine which is designing the first AI-operated fish processing factory of the future.

Dr Catchpole says being made a Fellow of the Royal Society is an endorsement of the teams and people he’s worked with over his long career. However, he is also pleased the honour recognises applied science and engineers – a career he says must be accorded more status if New Zealand is to become a hi-tech global competitor.

“Everyone can name the person who split the atom but very few could name the engineers and scientists who designed the first nuclear power reactor. If we look at Europe and the US you almost always find that the hi-tech and industrial companies are led by people with engineering or science degrees but that is not the case in New Zealand. That change has to happen at school and then transfer through to the leadership of companies in New Zealand.”

Dr Catchpole says seeing the science he works on become commercial outcomes for New Zealand is extremely rewarding.

“Discovering things is why I do the job but turning those discoveries into something practical is also extremely satisfying.”

Callaghan Innovation chief executive Stefan Korn says Dr Catchpole has made world-leading contributions on the development and establishment of supercritical fluid extraction as a key technology for New Zealand industry.

“Owen is highly sought after by research providers and industry across New Zealand for his expertise and is a recognised leader in his field."

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