The Canadian port town of Stewart isn’t your typical destination for a couple of kiwis doing their OE. Hungry bears stalk the banks of the aptly-named Fish Creek, where icy-cold waters teem with salmon.
For kiwi-born beekeeper Shandy Gibbs, it was a world away from her family’s farm in north Taranaki.Shandy would bravely peddle past the roaming bears on daily bike rides to Alaska.
“The border with the United States was a 10-minute ride from my house,” she said.
The isolated town, population 500, didn’t have the internet when Shandy and her partner Marty Fry lived there.
That remoteness made applying to be part of an agri-tech accelerator in New Zealand challenging.
“To submit the application online we had to drive four hours to Smithers, which was the nearest town with internet, and stay overnight,” recalls Shandy.
“It proves how determined we were to give it a go.”
The couple had an idea they believed would be a game-changer for New Zealand’s $315-million export honey industry. Their last-minute application made it through to the next stage of the competitive process.
It was another milestone for the couple, who’d earlier teamed up with two industrial designers, Nick Eaton and Nick Couch, to help progress their plans.
They formed agritech startup Ceratech.
Securing a Skype interview to pitch their idea got the company another step closer to the development phase.
“My business partners had to do the dragon’s den-style pitch without me,” said Shandy.
“I was away scaling mountains, taking rock samples and measurements for mine engineers.”
“I was working as a geo technician for a First Nations community which has a gold mine being built on its land,” she said
The budding entrepreneurs were accepted onto the Sprout Agritech Accelerator in Palmerston North. Shandy resigned as a geo technician and Marty quit his job as a pilot for Mustang Helicopters. Two days after arriving back in New Zealand they started their 20-week journey through the Sprout Agritech Accelerator.
“It was a massive, sudden change,” recalls Shandy.
“But we decided we wanted to work on this full-time and we wanted to be in New Zealand to do it.” The core of their business idea is to reduce a bee’s workload, dramatically increasing honey production.
When a beekeeper sets up hives at the start of the season, they attempt to provide bees with everything they’ll need.
They want a bee’s sole focus to be on honey production because the season is so short, especially for mānuka honey. “The only thing bees don’t get given are pre-drawn frames,” said Shandy.
“The reason for that is nobody’s invented them yet.”
“We decided we should give it a go because we realised it’d make a huge difference to their productivity,” she said.
Since entering Sprout in 2016, Ceratech has developed the pre-built frames, which are made from beeswax. “Bees use 7kgs of honey to make 1kg of wax to go onto a normal frame so they can store their honey in it.”
“You can see the massive efficiencies if we can recycle beeswax and make the frames for them,” said Shandy.
As it turns out, the frames are difficult to make, which is why Shandy believes no one else is doing it.
Trials of the product in Canada and New Zealand are delivering promising results. “The hives with our frames make 2.3 times more honey,” said Shandy.
Investors are showing interest in the fledgling start-up, with financial backers knocking on Ceratech’s door. Final trials are expected in New Zealand soon.
The company’s also investigating ways to sterilise the beeswax before it’s used to construct the frames. This would help to stem the spread of fatal bee diseases American Foulbrood (AFB) and Nosema.
“AFB spores are easily spread between hives because beekeepers reuse their frames for several years,” said Shandy.
“The sterilisation process can remove the spores, meaning the gear that goes back into the hives isn’t spreading the disease.”
The company is also developing a way of removing chemical residues from the use of pesticides and miticides, which is expected to be tested this season.
“The result is more pure, clean honey that meets medical-grade standards, which significantly increases the value of the crop.”
Honey, especially high-quality pharmaceutical-grade honey, is big business in New Zealand.
In 2016, honey exports were worth $315 million, a jump of 35 per cent on the previous year.
The number of registered beehives climbed to 684,000.
Last year that figure topped 800,000, according to the American Foulbrood Pest Management Plan.
Strong market demand for mānuka honey is fuelling the increase in hive numbers, with corporate and iwi investors driving the expansion.
The annual value of New Zealand’s mānuka honey industry is forecast to quadruple to $1.2 billion by 2028.
That projected growth provides enormous opportunities for Ceratech and its chief executive Shandy Gibbs.
As part of its time in Sprout, the company was introduced to business networks made up of angel investors, venture capitalists, and experienced entrepreneurs, including Peter Meyer.
He was brought onboard to help with the investment round and business model development.
“That’s been fantastic,” she said. The journey from an idea to a marketable product can be a long one. “The biggest thing we got through Sprout was access to those networks and support from people who were interested in seeing us succeed,” said Shandy.
Up to eight companies are selected to participate in the Sprout Agritech Accelerator each year.
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