Christopher Adams

Christopher Adams is the Markets and Banking reporter for the New Zealand Herald

Students weave success from flax

Trio develop natural, recyclable alternative to carbon fibre

EcoFibre's (from left) Oliver McGregor, Shaun Tan and Carl Jones. Photo / Chris Gorman
EcoFibre's (from left) Oliver McGregor, Shaun Tan and Carl Jones. Photo / Chris Gorman

Skateboarders and snowboarders will be hitting the streets and slopes on boards made of flax if a local start-up has its way.

EcoFibre, based at the University of Auckland's Centre for Advanced Composite Materials (CACM), has developed a recyclable alternative to carbon fibre, manufactured from flax and corn starch.

The company was last night named the winner of the university's Spark $100k Challenge, a student-led initiative aimed at encouraging young entrepreneurs.

For the prize, EcoFibre gets $25,000 seed capital and six-months' business incubation services at The Icehouse.

The product has a wide range of applications, from aircraft interiors to sails, foot orthotics (supports, splints and braces), skateboards and snowboards, said Oliver McGregor, who invented the fibre as part of his PhD thesis and has been working on the project for four years.

"After testing and enhancements the product has been refined to show a 50 per cent improvement on any other natural fibre product in the market today," McGregor said.

Shaun Tan, another PhD student at the university, has also been involved in EcoFibre's development.

Carl Jones, a post-graduate business student who teamed up with McGregor and Tan to form the start-up, said it would take another 12 to 18 months for EcoFibre to begin earning revenue.

He did not want to go into the details of the manufacturing process, saying the product was still undergoing patent protection.

The start-up's initial intention was to partner with local foot orthotic makers to develop the product for use in orthotics, before expanding overseas into other industries including the automotive sector, said Jones, who also works as an investment manager for the New Zealand Venture Investment Fund.

He said European car manufacturers were increasingly using natural fibre composites in order to comply with strict recycling laws.

"We've also been talking to a skateboard manufacturer in the US around doing something with them," he said.

"[EcoFibre is] not as strong as carbon fibre, but the offset to that is it's not as expensive as carbon fibre and it's recyclable."

Jones said skateboarders, whose boards have traditionally been made from wood, did not necessarily want boards made out of super-strong material.

"They want something a little bit more flexible so there's quite a few performance characteristics [in EcoFibre] that work really well for that sort of stuff."

Jones said the fibre was being made out of flax imported from India.

"New Zealand flax is not actually flax - we've found out it's actually a lily," he said. "There is scope for us to use New Zealand flax in the future but at the moment it will be based around this Indian flax."

EcoFibre
* Established by University of Auckland students Oliver McGregor, Carl Jones and Shaun Tan.
* Developed an alternative to carbon fibre made out of natural materials including flax and corn starch.
* Product has a wide range of applications, including sporting goods, car manufacturing and foot orthotics.
* 12 to 18 months away from earning first revenue.

- NZ Herald

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