Novatein is a pre revenue company spin out of University of Waikato research in 2008. On the face of it, the idea the company was founded on seems a little hair brained; turning bloodmeal into a plastic. First of all, bloodmeal is used as a fertilizer and sometimes as an animal feed, and is essentially dried blood. How can you make plastic from blood? Aren’t plastics made from petrochemicals?
As it turns out, plastic is formed from a polymer which is simply a molecule of repeating structural units. There is an extraordinary range of polymeric material around, and many play an essential role in everyday life such as shellac, amber and rubber which have been used for centuries. As it turns out, polymers are also present in proteins that are essential for life, for example, blood. Bio-polymer plastics are plastics derived from polymers sourced from biomass like plant material and algae, and in Novatein’s case, blood.
At the University of Waikato Dr Johan Verbeek decided that there was enough market potential for a bloodmeal based bio-polymer, so he built a team of student researchers to investigate how this could be achieved. That was in 2007. Today Novatein has secured investment form Endeavour Capital and is working with commercial partners in New Zealand Australia and the USA.
Researchers at the University of Waikato have developed a bloodmeal based bio-polymer formulation which can be modified and optimised to suit a particular products attributes. For example, pots, containers, pegs and weed matting have different characteristics and properties, so a bio-polymer formulation would be slightly different for each one. In another development Researchers have taken the colour out of the bloodmeal with the resulting plastic having a translucent honey coloured appearance.
One of the barriers bio-polymer plastics face is being price competitive with petrochemical plastics. You and I as consumers tend resist paying a premium for eco-friendly plastics, although we are all well aware of the damage plastics do to the environment. Bio-plastics are generally more expensive because their production tends to involve energy intensive and complex protein extraction techniques, which means significant investment in manufacturing facilities.
One of Novatein’s advantages is that its bio-polymer is much less expensive to produce because the bloodmeal has already been manufactured by the meat processing industry.
Novatein has come a long way in four years, and there remains’ many challenges to overcome if the bio-polymer is to make its way into the plastics market. With the commitment and dedication from The University of Waikato and WaikatoLink I wouldn’t bet against it.
Darren Harpur – Commercial Manager