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FFA Spotlights Migrant Entrepreneurs

Sunday, June 26th, 2022

Over a decade ago MacDiarmid Institute founder, renown physicist and technology entrepreneur the late Professor Sir Paul Callaghan proclaimed that we needed to make New Zealand “the place where talent wants to live”. Results of the 2022 Food, Fibre & Agritech (FFA) Supernode Challenge suggest we have reasons to be optimistic about attracting top talent to our shores.

During the last few weeks ThincLab advisors have been mentoring teams involved in the 2022 Food, Fibre and Agritech Supernode Challenge accelerator programme. The Challenge, supported by ChristchurchNZ, KiwiNet and the Canterbury Mayoral Forum sought to uncover innovative ideas with commercalisation potential from across research and business. Notably, environmental sustainability has been a key theme addressed by entrants within this year’s programme. Applicants really stepped up, with an initial 36 respondents whittled down to 24 participants, of these 12 outstanding finalists were selected.

Canterbury has a long and rich association with agricultural and is home to two universities and numerous land based research institutions. So there is no shortage of smart ideas on offer. But it has been a special thrill to see our skilled migrant researchers and entrepreneurs strongly represented among the participants in this programme. For many of them it has been a steep learning curve stepping out of the research lab and grappling with the fundamentals of business for the first time. But in every case they have grasped the opportunity and run with it.

Challenge overall winners Mahnaz Shaverdi and Associate Professor Ken Morison are food process engineering researchers from the University of Canterbury with big plans for turning plain old pea protein into a more desirable food source. Shaverdi migrated from Iran with the aim of pursuing further study and raising her young family in New Zealand. Morison is a respected engineer who originally returned home to work in the dairy industry after completing his doctorate at Imperial College in London. Commercialisation of their research is timely. Plant-based ingredients are one of the fastest growing food categories globally, as witnessed through the recent investment by Khosla Ventures in Canterbury plant protein processor Leaft Foods.

At a time when the world needs many bright minds to be working collectively on solving the myriad of social, economic and environmental problems that confront us, it is exciting to know that our skilled migrants are making an increasingly significant contribution. This is a success story that we rarely hear about and that needs to be told more often. Sir Paul Callaghan would have been encouraged by this progress.

      

All Aboard For Seaweed Science

Wednesday, June 8th, 2022

As a child, Andy Park says he was always interested in drawing, building and breaking things apart. It is hardly surprising then that he eventually discovered the answers to many of his questions through the world of science. Lately he’s been applying his ever-curious mind to decarbonisation of the construction industry.

SeaBoard is a fire-resistant plasterboard lining material made from processed seaweed. The product solves several “burning” problems right now with builders desperate to find additional sources of safe, clean and fireproof construction materials. SeaBoard not only has a much lower carbon footprint during production than traditional board, but actually sequesters carbon in the form of compressed seaweed.

Development of the product evolved out of Park’s University of Canterbury studies. Now as part of the Food, Fibre and Agritech Supernode Accelerator, Andy has received valuable advice on how to take the venture forward, including support from ThincLab Canterbury advisor Sean Whitaker. The programme has lifted his confidence and improved his overall knowledge on the business side, says Andy. Although it seems like the young University of Canterbury (UC) grad was on the right track from an early age.

Park emigrated from Korea with his family when he was a teenager. He cites his businessman father as a key influence leading him along the path of technology entrepreneurship. But he also credits Jony Ive, Apple’s lead consumer products designer as an inspiration. “Apple demonstrated that good product design can fundamentally improve our lives”, enthuses Andy. With the right partnerships in place, Seaboard could become a revolutionary and much sought after building product.

Things really took off with his 2021 success at the UC Innovation Jumpstart competition, just as he was completing his Industrial Product Design Bachelor degree. The School of Product Design sits within the highly regarded College of Engineering at the University of Canterbury. Andy was able to further his project over summer through a research assistant position with Dr. Dennis Pau looking into the thermal properties of different seaweed species.

The project is one of several submitted to the Challenge by UC researchers looking into sustainability and the transition to a greener, lower carbon economy. Now plans are underway to develop a final prototype and explore licensing options. Things are just warming up for Andy Park and his seaweed centred product design.

The Food, Fibre & Agritech Supernode Challenge is made possible with the support of ChristchurchNZ, KiwiNet and the Canterbury Mayoral Forum.

       

Curating Community Key To Success

Thursday, June 2nd, 2022

Blackbird Ventures’ recent visit to ThincLab was all about the well known venture capital firm getting to know our founders. But it was also about community building, collegiality and learning.

After numerous false starts thanks to lockdowns and alert level changes, we finally managed to pull off our long awaited event hosting the New Zealand Blackbird and Startmate crews at the University of Canterbury Centre for Entrepreneurship. Having created $10 billion in equity across some of Australia’s earliest unicorns, not to mention a generous sprinkling of other high growth companies, Blackbird Ventures has emerged over the last decade as Australasia’s largest and most active venture capital firm.

Whilst venture investment may not be for everyone, for those companies embarking on the journey, preparation is key. So we had Blackbird principal Phoebe Harrop lead a pitch workshop with founders from across the Christchurch ecosystem invited. Kathleen Yee from Plant My Carbon stepped up to give her Food, Fibre & Agritech Supernode Challenge pitch for the first time. “It was a wonderful opportunity to get feedback from a leading investor with the support of a room full of friendly founders” she said. Liam Beale CEO of Zealandia Systems, a ThincLab Growth programme company, also pitched. He explained that the session gave him some fresh ideas about refining his material ahead of some big sales events and conferences.

Harrop, who now runs the New Zealand wing of Blackbird, expressed that she is a big fan of building community. Blackbird is all about “finding the wild hearts” she says and investors ultimately rely on a pipeline of opportunities created by a vibrant and connected community. This has led to a promise of renewed engagement across the wider startup ecosystem including the announcement of a new Sunrise event planned for later this year. Now with the news of NZ Growth Capital Partners committing $30 million to Blackbird’s second $100M Kiwi fund and the relationship with Blackbird on a firm footing, it’s a fair bet there’s going to be a lot more pitch practice happening around the office.

Blackbird Singing

Thursday, May 19th, 2022

Currently holding around $10 billion in equity across companies, including some of Australia’s early unicorns, plucky Blackbird Ventures is arguably now Australasia’s largest and most active venture capital firm. We are thrilled to be hosting the Blackbird team at UCE/ThincLab on Wed 25th May.

The company has taken a founder-centric approach to every investment deal since launching in 2012. Building an engaged community of innovators, entrepreneurs and investors has been at the heart of the enterprise. This has been a point of difference for the “startup VC” since day one. Until the pandemic, Blackbird regularly hosted the Sunrise event for Aussie startups and has been a frequent supporter of events, online talks and roadshow gigs across the ditch in New Zealand. Blackbird also runs the StartMate accelerator programme. The team are on a New Zealand-wide roadshow tour and are visiting Christchurch as key sponsors of Electrify Aotearoa.

It’s surprisingly difficult to summarise the company’s investment thesis considering their highly diverse portfolio ranges from alternatives foods to software-as-a-service to precious metals recycling. What all of these investments generally have in common however are gnarly enterprise, cultural or environmental problems that call for solutions from committed and talented teams. Blackbird already has a Canterbury connection, having invested in Christchurch based auto parts marketplace Partly during 2021, alongside other luminaries such as Rocket Lab co-founder Peter Beck.

Could your startup be the next big thing? Join us and the Blackbird team next week for a presentation and networking session.

 

COllaborating On Carbon

Sunday, May 15th, 2022

Carbon credit trading has sometimes been criticised as counterproductive to the goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions on the basis that markets enable large emitters to avoid any meaningful change of behaviour. However trading markets, technologies and legislative frameworks are evolving steadily to answer such questions. Carbon trading and offsetting remain an important part of the mix. This year three of our Food, Fibre & Agritech accelerator teams are working hard on projects to increase transparency and impact around carbon sequestration within indigenous forest.

Current evidence suggests that more than two thirds of New Zealand’s native forest has been lost since human settlement began. This pattern is certainly not unique to our remote islands. Tropical and temperate rain forest ecosystems continue to remain under threat around the world. But now loopholes in local legislation are disturbingly allowing further environmental degradation through extensive plantings of low value pine tree monocultures. So at a time when we need to be remediating our environment and permanently removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere to limit increases in temperature, many people feel frustrated at a lack of appropriate solutions.

Switching to renewable energy sources, making fewer car journeys and consuming less imported goods for example are practical steps that everyone can take right now. But the wider global economy is undergoing a significant transition away from carbon intensive activity as green investment grows and polluting industries fall out of favour with investors. Carbon sequestration in the form of native tree reforestation is an exciting approach that could not only help us meet emission targets, but also regenerate long lost natural ecosystems alongside benefiting fresh water through reduced sediment loss.

Fittingly, the support of economic development agency ChristchurchNZ is allowing us to take an ecosystem building approach to our startup innovation community too! So as part of the Food, Fibre & Agritech Supernode Challenge we curated a collaborative discussion session (pictured) with participant teams working on carbon transition problems. Primary Insight co-founder and environmental consultant Andrew Curtis is a man who prefers to describe big problems as opportunities. As a precursor to carbon trading, the company wants to extract and process remote sensing data that validates land afforestation and creates value for rural landowners, he explained.

CarbonZ is building a New Zealand flavoured carbon credit trading platform that will immediately create liquidity for native forest owners within the local framework. Company co-founder and University of Canterbury Honours graduate Finn Ross secured pre-seed funding for the venture from some well known local investors and has an eye on future growth into global markets. The Plant My Carbon crew are looking into electronic tagging of native tree plantations to allow users to visualise exactly where their investments and carbon offsets reside. The team formed through working on MBA projects within the University of Canterbury Business School. Taking an ecosystem approach to growing our startups is all about  bringing together capital, talent and good ideas for a greener future.

#FFA2022 is supported by ChristchurchNZ, KiwiNet and the Canterbury Mayoral Forum alongside ThincLab Canterbury, University of Canterbury Centre for Entrepreneurship and B.linc as delivery partners.

       

Sustainability Focus For Researchers

Monday, May 9th, 2022

Climate change and environmental concerns are never far from our minds these days and especially so for science researchers within our universities and Crown Research Institutes. So this year’s Food, Fibre and Agritech Supernode Challenge has a special focus on primary sector sustainability. As global interest in waste mitigation and production of alternative foods with lower carbon profiles surges, University of Canterbury researchers are rising to the challenge.

Reducing emissions through application of greentech is not only good for the planet, but also represents a substantial economic opportunity. Something the global investment community is rapidly getting on board with. It is estimated that over $100 billion was invested in cleantech or decarbonisation technologies by private equity or venture capital investors in 2021 globally and more than half of that was for early stage companies. Those figures do not include hundreds of millions that have poured into plant-based food companies as consumer demand explodes.

The recent news of a US$15M series A investment into Leaft Foods, from highly respected deep tech investor Khosla Ventures, illustrates that research based Canterbury companies can foot it on the global stage. Founded by agri-food pioneers Maury and John Penno, the company aims to produce high value Rubisco protein directly from leafy crops with a 10x lower carbon footprint per hectare than conventional dairy protein. Food process engineer and Leaft CEO Ross Milne learned his trade under the tutelage of Associate Professor Ken Morison at the University of Canterbury.

In fact Morison and PhD candidate Mahnaz Shaverdi form one of the researcher teams involved in this year’s Food, Fibre & Agritech Supernode Accelerator programme (FFA). They are looking into how production technologies from the dairy industry can be applied to processing of plant protein. University of Canterbury biotechnologist Associate Professor David Leung is excited about the application of specialised plant varieties in solving environmental problems. With post-doctoral research associate Dr Gowtham Janardhanan, the team are focused on the vexatious issue of extracting nitrates from waterways with plant biomass that can be recycled as an energy feedstock.

Finalists in the programme will present at E Tipu – BOMA Agri Summit in Christchurch 21-22 June.

Food, fibre and agritech contributes a huge share of Canterbury’s regional economic activity. Connecting researcher talent to local industry as well as identifying sources of capital for good ideas are all part of the grand plan to build capability. #FFA2022 is supported by ChristchurchNZ, KiwiNet and the Canterbury Mayoral Forum alongside ThincLab Canterbury, University of Canterbury Centre for Entrepreneurship and B.linc as delivery partners.

Image credit: Paul Spence

  

 

Finger Pickin’ Good

Friday, April 22nd, 2022

Joining a band can be a lot like doing a startup company. So there must be a little bit of bluegrass moonshine in the blood of banjo picking, guitar strumming Sean Whitaker who has played a part in developing a number of homegrown food and beverage brands in recent years. Now he’s advising companies within the ThincLab-Food South programme.

Sean has a diverse business background including running his own project management consultancy and providing leadership and tertiary training for project management practitioners. Having completed post-graduate degrees at both Lincoln University and University of Canterbury, Sean gained a wealth of experience delivering or advising on projects for major corporates as well as government sectors across New Zealand and Australia. At one point he was even involved in a collaboration with NASA.

Whitaker’s part-time role at ThincLab involves advising company founders on business growth and capital raising strategies. He’s been keeping busy with a range of companies from a truffle farm through to a vegan food manufacturer, with a particular focus on scaling for global growth. An appreciation for cultivating a global outlook was ingrained in Sean from an early age in fact, having grown up in a military family with postings within the multi-ethnic commercial hub nations of  Malaysia and Singapore.

When asked about how we can boost business across the region Sean points out that, “Canterbury is under appreciated as a home for great start-ups”. He’s a big believer in training and mentoring for early stage founders, including encouraging young entrepreneurs from secondary schools and university. Something that aligns well with the ThincLab Canterbury ethos. “Entrepreneurialism needs to be framed as a legitimate career and not just something that people fall into accidentally”, he says. He also thinks it’s time to rebrand the city of Christchurch from Garden City to the City of Innovation. Perhaps we could even do both?

Are you a founder of a growth stage business with global ambitions? ThincLab Canterbury is supported by ChristchurchNZ to provide free advisory to eligible companies on strategy, capital-raising and international growth. Contact ThincLab for more information.

 

Sustainable Foodtech For A Hungry World

Friday, April 8th, 2022

Food sustainability is becoming a huge topic of conversation worldwide and hungry investors are waking up to the growth possibilities as we track towards 10 billion mouths to feed by 2050. Investment research company PitchBook tracked almost US $40 Billion in venture capital flow into food tech in 2021, double the previous year’s figures. But with an estimated $1 Trillion+ required to transition the global food industry to a greener low carbon future, the sky’s the limit.

One of the most interesting categories in food tech right now is the fast emerging ingredients sector, as consumers increasingly shift away from traditional sources of protein in search of healthier options with lower environmental impact. Driven by continual innovations in plant-based food technologies, the demand for high quality source materials continues to grow rapidly. Last week’s announcement that Khosla Ventures was investing in Canterbury based Leaft Foods is testament to the scale of the opportunity. Plant-based burgers and lab grown chicken are no longer fanciful subjects of science fiction.

So our producers need to monitor and continually adapt to global developments, rather than assuming that the demand for traditional proteins will remain unchanged. Evolving consumer needs and advances in food science are both a threat and an opportunity to an agricultural nation such as New Zealand. So we dropped in on SGInnovate’s deep tech webinar series to find out how Singapore is turning to science and innovation to find solutions to food security and sustainability.

SGInnovate actively supports entrepreneurial researchers to commercialise deep tech across the science spectrum in Singapore, including facilitating connections to capital and talent. In 2020 the Singaporean government allocated a staggering S$300 million to support the project as part of an overall commitment to drive up public investment in research, science and technology to 1% of GDP. SG Innovate has built up an impressive portfolio of more than 80 deep tech ventures so far. Conversely in New Zealand the approach has been to invest as little as possible from the public purse and simply outsource deep tech incubation to foreign operators without consideration to building a wider innovation ecosystem.

However panelists at the agrifood webinar were clearly in favour of governments playing an active role in the development of the research, science and technology landscape. But they also pointed to the government role in bringing digitalisation to rural economies through better infrastructure, training farmer producers as well as addressing the regulatory environment to encourage innovation. For example Singapore was the first country to approve retail sales of cultured meat. Fittingly speaker Geraldine Goh from the recently established Foodtech Innovation Centre had the last word on futuristic foods yet to be developed by the scientist entrepreneurs of the avid food loving island nation. “It will be all about taste, texture and nutrition”.

ThincLab Canterbury is a delivery partner for the 2022 Food, Fibre and Agritech Supernode Challenge

Singapore will be hosting the Asia-Pacific Agri-Food Innovation Summit in October 2022.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

A Taste For Business

Wednesday, March 30th, 2022

Hannah Airey is what you might call a “necessity entrepreneur”. Driven by a need to provide for her family and a desire to support others who needed a helping hand, she started baking and selling gluten free and vegan goodies. Bad Ass Brownies was born. Now after graduating with honours from the Start Me Up accelerator, the sweet treat maker is joining the Thinclab Canterbury – FoodSouth pilot programme.

FoodSouth is the South Island hub of the New Zealand Food Innovation Network, an initiative that supports growth stage food and beverage businesses to innovate, commercialise and scale upwards. The goal is to evolve new product ideas right through to the multi-million dollar manufacturing investment stage, says FoodSouth business development manager Tracey Sheehy . The network is government funded and is open to both startups and more established businesses.

Food startup entrepreneurs not only receive business coaching, but can also whip up trial production runs in the modern custom built commercial kitchen, whilst larger firms are welcome to perform research and development activities and test new equipment onsite. Based on the Lincoln University campus, FoodSouth has worked with emerging brands such as Ananda and Otis Oat Milk whose products already grace our supermarket shelves.

Creating and growing a food or beverage business remains hard work however, so having the support of dedicated business advisors and industry experts on tap is a huge bonus. That’s where the ThincLab Canterbury advisory team comes in. Companies are hand selected for the pilot programme and generally meet with the advisors on a fortnightly basis. Of course one of the bonuses of working with our wonderful food and drink businesses is that we advisors do get to sample the merchandise occasionally. It’s tough work, but someone has to do it!

Got a new food or beverage enterprise that’s taking off?  Contact ThincLab Canterbury to discuss eligibility.

Start Me Up and the FoodSouth-ThincLab pilot programme are co-funded by ChristchurchNZ

 

Greentech Surpassing Sunset Industries

Monday, March 14th, 2022

Global headwinds such as resurgent interest rates and pandemic induced supply chain difficulties may have led to a cyclical downturn in share price fortunes for listed greentech companies lately, but the rivers of private capital pouring into the sector continue unabated.

Industry commitments to reaching net zero carbon by 2050 are growing, bolstered by the trend toward embedding ESG principals into corporate decision-making and the likelihood of government interventions for non-performers. So the green transition is happening faster than most people are aware. Industry leaders like former Bank of England CEO Mark Carney last year announced an alliance of investment firms to set its sights on facilitating the staggering $100 Trillion in investment estimated to be needed for decarbonisation of the global economy over the next two decades.

So with new climate based investment funds launching almost weekly and private equity investors taking a 40 year view, the future remains very bright for the emerging “greentech” sector. The definition of greentech covers just about any industry involved in directly or indirectly reducing emissions of greenhouse gases including renewable energy, alternative transport and new foods. It’s a space that many New Zealand firms could comfortably fit into. For example Taupo based Geo40 that has begun extracting high value lithium salts from geothermal waste water, for use in electric car batteries. ThincLab alumni such as Berkano Foods, Kea Aerospace and Zincovery have also been playing their part directing us toward a greener future.

Estimates vary depending on analysis methodology but it has been estimated that around $100 Billion in fresh investment went into American and European companies working on decarbonisation technologies across 2021 according to a report by PWC. Research firm BloombergNEF stated that over half of that investment went into startups. Venture capital funds are now allocating 14% of their capital into the sector on average. But more significantly, some of the largest global investment funds have begun to sell down holdings in polluting industries, in favour of reinvesting in climate friendly businesses and infrastructure projects.

ThincLab Canterbury works with a number of companies in cleantech and is a delivery partner for the 2022 Food, Fibre & Agritech Supernode Challenge. We are committed to showing environmental and sustainability leadership through supporting our client companies. If you have a scalable, technology based solution that addresses environmental problems or decarbonisation, please contact us for advisory support with strategy, partnerships and capital-raising.