Owners of Paeroa-based company AgriSea say "it's still sinking in" that they won one of the technology sector's most sought-after accolades - the NZ Hi-Tech Award as Maori company of the year.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was among the guests at a recent gala event in Wellington and made a point of personally congratulating general manager Clare Bradley and husband, chief innovation officer Tane Bradley (Ngāti Maniapoto, Waikato-Tainui).
AgriSea won the Hi-Tech Kamupene Māori o te Tau category of the NZ Hi-Tech Awards against finalists Envico Technologies, Plink and Height after being nominated as a finalist for the second year.
"I honestly thought we weren't in the running and I was in this blank space when the winner was called," laughs Tane. "It's still sinking in."
AgriSea has pioneered seaweed's potential and is also celebrating 25 years of business.
Clare says the award was welcome recognition for the business, which aims to preserve and regenerate the marine environment through the 'blue economy'.
"It's really brought home to us that green technology, and using natural systems and ecological principles, can also be recognised as hi-tech. We hope this inspires others and increases acknowledgement of biological solutions and technologies that are good for the planet and the future of Aotearoa."
AgriSea is growing the value of raw material sustainably collected from remote coastal communities through products – known as biostimulants - for soil, pasture and animal health.
Tane says the business has grown its range of products and customer base in a positive trajectory since meeting people supportive of their goals.
They tapped into the knowledge of crown research institutes that specialise in research, innovation, science and technology, including Scion and Callaghan, to prove efficacy of their bio stimulants, and to develop these new products and markets.
It was the foundation for the business in establishing its markets in New Zealand and offshore.
"It's a whole journey after we met the Scion crew at a Matariki X event hosted by Callaghan Innovation five years ago, which was where it all started to kick off for us."
Here they were seated next to Dr Marie-Joo Le Guen and Dr Stefan Hill of Crown Research Institute Scion. A casual conversation about nanocellulose from seaweed waste led to a partnership of five years.
Nanocellulose can be used in batteries, adhesives, biomedical supplies and cosmetics. Dr Hill said this can replace traditional petrochemical-based products.
"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."
"New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, MBIE and Callaghan have been there for us in their own way."
AgriSea is exploring the use of seaweed for wound care, creating cleaner waterways, for bee health, consumables in the beauty and human health industry and for food. Some of these products were created using the waste product from manufacturing its agricultural and horticultural offerings.
Around 40 staff work for the company, which has kept its operations in Paeroa. Clare and Tane are the second generation to run the business, established by Tane's mother, Jill Bradley, and stepfather Keith Atwood.
Recently the business won a Fieldays Innovation Award for Fortress + – a prototype formulation that when fed to cows reduces their oxidative stress (increasing disease resistance), as well as urinary nitrogen levels by around 18 per cent.
"The science behind the formulation was developed over three years by a Lincoln University PhD student, enabled by a Callaghan Innovation R&D Fellowship Grant," says Clare. "From that three-year journey we've produced seven peer-reviewed papers, and we've also had huge interest in the formulation from large markets, such as the US."
AgriSea secured a further Fellowship Grant to help it commercialise IP that it developed in partnership with Scion to develop high value hydrogels using nanocellulose.
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, producing an environmentally superior product that adds economic value to AgriSea and the 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."
The technology has been licensed to AgriSea to continue the development of hydrogels. Says Clare: "Our challenge is to talk to more people outside our area of expertise, learn from each other and collaborate more
"We are a small country but we can benefit the world by combining our strengths."
The couple say Manaakitanga is an important value at AgriSea, which has grown a reputation for welcoming visitors from around the world.
"Sometimes it's hard to encapsulate our approach to business," says Tane, "but really, it's that we live our values – to respect each other, and our environment. We see ourselves as a family doing good things and we want to partner with others who are doing the same."
Being unable to engage international customers face-to-face was a challenge during Covid-19, says Clare. The team is looking forward to welcoming people back as international travel restarts.
"The pandemic has increased people's focus on health and wellbeing, leading consumers to increasingly explore biologically based products."
In the quarter to June 2021, AgriSea doubled export orders compared with the same quarter the previous year.
"We've always felt like we were on the cusp of something – it's just that sometimes it takes a little longer than you envisage," Clare says. "What we haven't done is waited for the wave to come to us. We've invested in people, technology and partnerships to ensure we're solving problems, and having a positive impact."
The award was sponsored by Callaghan Innovation.