Veronica Stevenson is one of those multi-talented young peeps who eight years ago read an obscure-ish article about the properties of a solitary bee’s nesting material. The cellophane-like natural polymer product was intriguing to her.
Back in 2011 she won an ‘International Market Analysis Search’ in the Bright Ideas Challenge. Later with proceeds from a TechTransfer voucher and her life savings she hired AgResearch to do some digging, experimenting and testing.
This intensive ‘finding out’ research was going on while she was studying for her Masters in Science Communication. Later Veronica bought the resulting IP licensing/royalties off the CRI, and raised an initial NZD$160,000 in capital.
Researchers discovered that the natural polymer manufactured in the bee’s gut and laid down for the protection and growth of bee larvae has some marvellous properties.
For a start, material made from nesting material is resistant to industrial-level water, flames, high temperatures and chemicals.
In 2017 ‘Humble Bee’, as the company is known, synthesised a great deal of the chemical processes through Victoria University’s Ferrier Institute. The business also formed an extremely interesting board around the theoretically benign polymer, which as an exact mimic for a product found in nature has numerous potential commercial applications.
This board includes Richard Furneaux, a prize-winning, ground-breaking chemist as well as a bon-vivant character. Sparkbox MD Greg Sitters is also on the board, and team members include Ferrier Institute chemist Simon Hinkley and PhD candidate Charlotte Page, as well as IP specialist Jo Shaw from AJ Park and Victoria Crockford in comms.
Last year Humble Bee’s next phase of commercialization was also designed.
Replicating two of three chemical processes
The team understands and can replicate, two of the three chemicals within the Solitary Bee that together produce the polymer, “and we have pretty good insight into what that third one is,” Veronica says.
A recently approved Callaghan Innovation Project grant will help fund the next stage of research.
The company’s seeking NZD$350,000, giving it a pre-numerary value of about $1.5 million.
Veronica says Humble Bee is targeting investors who understand the scale and complexity of perfecting their natural polymer platform.
As she cranks up Humble Bee’s R&D and possible product applications, Veronica is stepping away from ‘Spindle Fibre Films’, a film making venture whose last production was ‘Mum, Cannabis and Me - The Right To Informed Choice’ .
Still, there is a long way to go to use biomimicry to manufacture sustainable polymers.
The former Dunedinite has turned a questioning observation into a possibly lucrative project, which could help solve many global challenges around environmentally unfavourable polymers, where alternatives are too expensive, too scarce, or underperform.
There will be hurdles to commercialising what started as a “how do they do that?” in the middle of the night.
But; given her tenacity and team she’s building, it is a venture well worth watching (if not investing in as long as you’re aware of the risks).
Some of New Zealand’s most promising futures lie in developing clever, niche biological enterprises that leverage our sunshine, water and soils - but more particularly our brains.
And sure, the genesis for these green polymers come from Australia...but we’ll call this a mid-Tasman initiative eh?