Kaeo-based Shaun Gregory talks designing a shellfish mould to grow oysters in and how his idea could be a game changer for the industry.
What does your business do?
We have designed a method of growing shellfish. What we're dealing with at the moment is oysters but we've patented this method and moulds for all shellfish so it may go beyond oysters eventually.
We take infant oysters which are around 10mm in size and place them into the moulds. What it allow us to do is grow a uniformed-shaped oyster and the reason to try and get consistency in a uniform-shaped oyster is so we can apply automation and efficiency to the industry.
In the past, large oyster companies have tried to design and produce an opening machine and have failed because of the inconsistent shapes, they haven't come up with anything that is viable so my thoughts were I'd grow oysters in a mould to get around the shape. The other thing our system offers is that you can have branding in the shell. I started the business in May 2013.
What was the motivation for starting it?
I had the idea about 12 years ago but it has taken such a long time because money and time were the two things I didn't have.
I've had to do this on a shoestring budget. Once I had the New Zealand patent approved then I was able to look for investors and the company now has 13 shareholdings. I've managed to do a fair bit of capital raising and get through the R&D stage and we're just about to enter commercialisation where we will do the first sales of the system.
Have you signed any contracts with companies to use your invention?
The first company that's coming onboard, and we're only dealing with one company at the moment, is one of the biggest oyster companies in New Zealand - who I won't name because we're just going over the fine details of the deal. They are going to be coming onboard in six months' time.
How exactly does your growing system work?
With conventional oysters, the way they are grown at present, it takes 12 to 14 months to produce a mature oyster and in our system it takes six months.
The main reason would be that our system has a neutral buoyancy which allows the oysters to stay in the top four inches of the water at all times so it goes up and down with the tide. By doing this, they are feeding 24/7 unlike conventional methods they come out four hours around the low tide everyday.
Also, oysters' main feed is phytoplankton and 95 per cent of phytoplankton is in the first six inches of the water so we're in the optimum feeding zone and they are feeding 24/7 - that would be the main reason. There's no genetically modified oysters here - they are all natural. All we are doing is controlling the way they are growing, given them the best environment.
What model will you run this business on and what do you want to achieve?
It's going to be a game changer for the industry. It'll make oyster farming more user-friendly and there'll be a lot of savings for farmers because of automation.
On the farming side where I've been working for the past 20 years, most of my colleagues including myself, have all got bad backs from working in the mud in general, so by apply this method most of it is automated now and most of the heavy lifting out - it's all done by a hauler. We used to have to work around the tide so quite often we'd be down at the ramp at 3am going out to work with headlamps on. Our systems float and you can access them at any time.
What's your long-term goal?
Our long-term goal is to totally automate the factory side so the oysters will be opened by machines, picked by a machine and so forth. We won't be dealing with the oysters ourselves. Our main market to start off with will be large companies that own farms and factories so they can clip the ticket at both ends, and we'll be doing it through a licensing deal.
We're targeting the New Zealand market this year. We'll start with the large New Zealand company, and by the end of the year we should have a turn-key package we can replicate anywhere in the world. We've got patents in eight countries, plus the European patent which has numerous countries under it.
What advice do you give to others thinking about starting their own business?
If you really believe in something then don't give up on it. Surround yourself with people who are good in the areas you are not.