Cawthron claims lucrative scientific breakthrough

The Nelson-based Cawthron Institute says it has cracked a new and lucrative export market with rare organic compounds derived from algae.

According to acting chief executive Daryl Wehner, international sales over the past nine months have exceeded $250,000 and several more large orders have been placed. 

The compounds are natural toxins produced by algae, often found in food such as shellfish, are necessary for research and other high value products, including pharmaceuticals. That makes them of special interest to scientists as well as regulatory bodies. And he says Cawthron is one of only a handful of organisations worldwide with the capability to produce these.

“Our process, though, is unique in that we are the only ones able to link the whole process from beginning to end – culturing and producing compounds from our own algal collection prior to extraction and purification, and further synthesis.”

Wehner says this emerging market provides a great opportunity for New Zealand, especially once the potential for pharmaceutical development for the treatment of diseases is explored.

“We have spent 15 years developing our science and expertise in this field, initially to ensure the safety of the New Zealand seafood industry, and now we have an opportunity to convert this capability into unique, high value, highly sought after compounds.

“Any product that sells for about 50,000 times the price of gold would have to be the ultimate in New Zealand’s search for differentiated high value exports.”

Wehner says a level teaspoon of these compounds is worth several million dollars.

Cawthron recently sold one milligram of an extracted natural compound, equivalent in volume to three grains of salt, for €3,000 (or NZ$5,500) and 10 milligrams of another compound to the US for over NZ$45,000.

Cawthron’s laboratory services manager, Nico Van Loon, says because the compounds are present in very small amounts in the algae, extracting them is “very much akin to finding a needle in a haystack".

But he says the potential returns could be phenomenal, with sales to date coming solely from customer enquiries.

“We had initially intended to investigate the worldwide demand for these compounds but preliminary conversations with potential customers have already produced more demand than we can cope with at the moment.”

Wehner says Cawthron is now considering what capital investment may be needed to enable the institute to expand the range of compounds it can provide to customers and establish wider markets.

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