A team of Canterbury and Lincoln Universities students and their concept, Kelpn, won the 2019 Sustainability Challenge (co-hosted by the University of Canterbury Centre for Entrepreneurship, and Blinc Innovation). The idea was to use the properties of seaweed to create a range of packaging solutions.
Kelpn is now a nascent company with the goal of helping to tackle the problem of single-use plastics in the human consumption chain through the development of kelp-based bioplastic food and other packaging solutions to replace petrochemical-based plastics.
The Sustainability Challenge required teams to design a business venture to help create environmental sustainability in New Zealand’s food industry. The businesses had to contribute towards the goal of New Zealand becoming a zero-carbon/low-emissions economy with “exemplar fresh water standards”.
The Ministry for Primary Industries was a lead partner in the Challenge, through some funding support, mentoring, advice and involvement on the judging panel. Since winning the Challenge, the fledgling company has been introduced (through MPI) to support partners, coaches and mentors as they begin their journey to commercialisation of their product.
There are three members of the Kelpn team. Responsible for the Accounting & Finance department is Abel Goremusandu, currently completing a Bachelor of Commerce (Hons), majoring in Accounting and Finance at the University of Canterbury. Driver of Marketing & Strategy for Kelpn is Mikaila Celeen. She is currently undertaking a Masters of Commerce at the University of Canterbury, specialising in sustainable marketing and business practices.
Agricultural Scientist Jack Holloway has a range of hands-on experience in the primary industries. He graduated from Lincoln University with a Bachelor of Agricultural Science (Hons) and a passion for innovation in the primary sector. By being involved with Kelpn, he hopes to protect and improve that image, while simultaneously creating new opportunities in the primary industries. Jack is currently on an internship in China.
PLAs are plastics derived from renewable resources, such as corn starch or sugar cane, also known as bioplastics. They are a rapidly expanding area of interest for many who want to see the end of the use of petroleum-based plastics. They are being employed in medical implants, as they can be designed to breakdown naturally and safely in the body. They are also used for single-use drink bottles, food wrap, and for product development through the ability to cheaply produce prototypes. PLAs can come in a variety of forms, from printable filament, pellets or thin film.
Abel explains the idea behind Kelpn is to provide a PLA that is home compostable. Kelp is being explored as the raw material for this bioplastic because the team believes it is a resource that is underutilised. Unlike other potential bioplastic source materials it requires no land, freshwater or nutrient inputs. It has the added benefit of filtering contaminants in the ocean and effectively “cleaning” them, which could benefit marine life.
The initial Sustainability Challenge happened over a weekend. “We got put into groups on a Wednesday evening and by the end of that session we had parts of our concept. By the weekend we had done enough research to discover we were onto a good idea and our passion for it grew. After winning the competition we decided to take it further to see if we could create an actual product and business from it. She adds, “We all have such different skills that when we were put in our initial team we couldn’t believe our luck. Although I haven’t completed my studies yet, I’ve been successful in making a prototype, thanks to the great research from the team.”
Initial market research into food packaging was undertaken by talking to supermarket owners, which influenced the product they worked on. Since then, Kelpn has been approached by other businesses wanting this type of packaging so it indicates there is a real demand for it. They have also done work with further iterations of their prototype.
Brown kelps are good at sequestering carbon, also at filtering and removing contaminants from the ocean providing a better marine habitat for wildlife, which will in turn benefit local fisheries. They grow extremely fast (faster than tropical bamboo), and require no inputs. Kelp doesn’t need water or added nutrients because it get them from the ocean, brown kelp is found throughout New Zealand, but in particular, near Banks Peninsula.
Initial products they are working on include replacements for non-direct food packaging such as plastic wrap that holds a pack of fruit boxes together, or holds boxes onto pellets. Once they have established a viable product for this, they would like to focus on direct food packaging for consumers, such as produce packaging, for example, bags for apples or lettuce. A replacement for agricultural wrap is also high on the list of products they would like to work on.
The team says there is potential in farming brown kelp but recognise in the interim that the ingredients they need can currently be sourced from overseas. But “once the product is up and running, we can then focus on the entire supply chain.”