Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Wool tech search ‘starting to yield results’

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WRONZ deploys former Wool Board money on research into saleable wool-derived products.
Wool Source powder is one of the range of products transforming strong wool into new forms with new applications.
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A project exploring new uses for strong wool is hitting its stride and attracting strong international interest, the Wool Research Organisation of New Zealand says.

WRONZ established Wool Source in 2021 as a commercialisation venture to test market potential for products developed via the New Uses for Strong Wool programme. 

The programme is supported by wool growers, supply chain participants, the Ministry for Business and Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures (SFFF) fund.

Wool Source chief executive Tom Hooper said the focus on commercialisation for its wool-derived powder, pigments and particle products is starting to yield results. 

WRONZ holds the intellectual property rights and patents for the technology it has generated. 

“We have had an incredible response from the different sectors and industries we have been introducing to our products in,” Hooper said. 

“The value proposition wool offers is not only those natural performance benefits of wool, which we’ve retained as we’ve transformed the fibre into new forms, but its credentials as a natural, renewable, biodegradable and ethically sourced product.” 

The products have attracted interest ranging from large multinationals to local NZ players and comes from sectors as diverse as personal care and cosmetics to ink and coatings. 

“We’re selling product, we’ve got multiple product development projects underway with international brands and a significant opportunity is opening up for our Wool Source Pigments in the inkjet printing market,”  he said.

The focus remains on finding markets and opportunities that will return the most value for growers, lift the price of wool at the farm gate and capture as much margin as possible within NZ. 

“We are crystal clear that our mandate is the WRONZ mandate to maximise the returns for growers. 

“We are ultimately looking for volume sales opportunities for our products and access to our IP and technology is conditional on customers using NZ strong wool. 

“This puts us in a different position to a commercial entity looking to maximise their own profitability or short-term returns,” Hooper said.

As Wool Source was set up to establish the commercial viability of its products and create new markets for sales rather than ongoing commercial operations, WRONZ is using an independent advisory firm to investigate the longer-term commercial pathway options and which of those can deliver the greatest success for growers. 

An opportunity for NZ-based investment is expected in the next 12 months.

Meanwhile the market engagement for Wool Source continues at pace.

“We have new Wool Source products launching soon that open up even more markets and travel to Europe and the US planned over the next couple of months to share exciting product development trial results with potential distribution partners. 

“There is a momentum gathering with a lot of irons in a lot of fires. 

“Product adoption of new and novel technology is not an overnight endeavour but I’m feeling positive and excited by the opportunities ahead,” Hooper said.

Acting chair Andrew Morrison said WRONZ is in the game to tangibly find a solution to improve returns for growers.

WRONZ inherited $40 million of former NZ Wool Board funds, and the Wool Source pigments project has dipped into that bucket.

Almost $10m has been invested in a pilot plant at Lincoln University aimed at demonstrating saleable deconstruction of the strong-wool process. 

“This is the last remaining Wool Board money, it is grower money. WRONZ is tasked with researching value creation, we are doing that and, yes, the fund is now sitting at about $30m.

“We want farmers to know what’s going on and this new technology is challenging ourselves while fundamentally getting returns for farmers.

“We are running as fast as we can and committing that capital to the pilot plant because we are well aware of the challenge. We need to find a solution.”

Morrison was hesitant to put a timeframe around the wool-derived powder, Wool Source pigments and particle products project given it is just now reaching the commercialisation stage.

“You don’t have a customer until you deliver the product they want. We are fine-tuning to ensure the product is picked up.

“WRONZ do all the related research work and we present that to the industry, and once the pilot plant meets the specific needs of customers with a business case that stacks up for industry, we find the best way to release the product bringing value back to the farmer and value to the entity that captures the manufacturing margin,” Morrison said.

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