A number of people have been surprised that I left Rua Bioscience this year and interested in what I’m doing now. I’ve been a little vague because it’s difficult to summarise in a sentence or two, so thought I’d share a bit more here.
Nearly everything I’m involved with is connected to the other things either directly or indirectly, and I’m fortunate to be able to work on stuff I care about and usually have a material interest in.
Looking back over my working life I haven’t had a career as such, but have been able to work in projects and organisations that are meaningful to me. I haven’t really had a boss at work since 2007 when I was employed by a government agency for 18 months. Being an elected representative was probably the least enjoyable job I’ve had – with 50,000 bosses!
I struggle to imagine working for someone else again but no doubt at some stage it might be necessary or useful, but for now I love being my own boss and trying to create new things with smarter people than me. This is what happened with Rua Bioscience, and when the entity was built and I couldn’t offer much more, I needed to move on.
So now I find myself involved in a disparate array of projects that are quite diverse but linked in a weird constellation between rural economic development, climate change, biodiversity enhancement, sustainable land use, indigenous rights, global trade, biotechnology and business start-ups.
Foundations & Motivations
In 2015 our family moved to my wife’s tribal lands and on to a 130 hectare property that is collectively owned by 400 ‘shareholders’, many of them family trusts with dozens or hundreds of beneficiaries. At the time the land was administered by Te Tumu Paeroa, an entity established by the government to manage Māori land interests when the legal owners did not have another form of governance in place to administer the communal asset.
Over the past few years we have worked with Te Tumu Paeroa and the largest shareholders in the land to establish a trust that the owners now run themselves. This wasn’t a complex process, but requires the involvement of the Māori Land Court and a series of meetings of owners (many of whom no contact details exist on file for) to discuss the proposal for the owners to establish and govern the land block themselves. Covid didn’t help, but we got there eventually and there is now a group of trustees elected by the owners to make decisions about the land.
The trust has focused on risk assessments and opportunities to progress aspirations of the owners – especially for more housing development on the land and to protect the hillsides from erosion that is eating away the soil at an accelerating pace.
This land block is typical of hundreds in our district – with significant environmental challenges (like severe erosion and the almost complete loss of indigenous biodiversity), real interest from landowners in returning onto the land that their ancestors left for them, but few financial resources to address the environmental or housing issues, let alone establish new industry to create sustainable employment and income for families already living in the area or wanting to move back ‘home’.
It was in this context a few of us started looking at what we could do to help create more opportunities for truly sustainable economic development in the area – industry that would be good for whānau (people) and good for the whenua (land).
Hikurangi Enterprises & Hikurangi Bioactives
In 2015 we create a charitable company called Hikurangi Enterprises Limited (HEL) as a community-owned social enterprise that has a goal of creating sustainable employment and economic development in the Waiapu Valley between Waipiro Bay and Rangitukia – and further beyond if it can! Of course we had lots of dreams but no resources beyond a few well-intentioned volunteer company directors with very little business experience between us.
I talked to my good friend who had lived with our family off and on for a decade and helped raise our kids. He had some funds he could contribute and we worked out I could contribute my time for a year or two to see what could be achieved. We created our own company and with HEL formed a new entity, Hikurangi Bioactives Limited Partnership (HBLP) which kept HEL 100% community-owned. My friend and I took 40% of HBLP and we gave 60% to HEL, we kept control as it was all of our money and time going into HBLP.
HBLP invested in some research and development with kānuka oil products alongside another company that had a focus on developing clinically proven therapies from kānuka honey. We looked at the chemical composition of kānuka oil, potential benefits documented in scientific literature and anecdotal evidence from similar products. We decided to focus on eczema and acne as the two indications to take into clinical trials.
We connected with some of the local Māori landowners and funded the extraction of oil from the leaves of locally harvested trees. Eventually these relationships were formalised with a group of 16 land blocks willing to work with us.
Around the same time we also started investigating bioactives found in kina (sea urchins) and connected with hapū (tribal groupings) in the region who were willing to collaborate by contributing samples of kina for scientists to study.
Both the kina and kānuka projects resulted in quite interesting arrangements being negotiated around intellectual property associated with the indigenous organisms being studied and potential commercialisation of products derived from the plant and shellfish.
Some of the work on these projects has come to an end, at least for now, other work is progressing – and in July this year we were excited to have the first clinical trial results published in The Lancet, one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world. This was a great milestone after nearly seven years of research and investment, the clinical results are more positive than we even hoped for and we are now offering the formulation to potential licensing partners for global distribution. If/when we find one or more licensees it will be the trigger for commercial scale kānuka oil production and a number of those truly sustainable jobs we set out to create with HEL and HBLP.
HBLP was also the original investor and owner of the medicinal cannabis company that became Rua Bioscience. In 2022 HBLP sold some RUA shares to support the development of the kānuka oil industry in Tairāwhiti and nationally, it has retained some RUA shares to fund future activities and distributed the rest to the two partner companies.
HEL has also progressed and has been busy over the past two years building dozens of small residential units for whānau in Tairāwhiti to put on their land, and has recently launched another initiative Nati Kaiti, selling boxes of healthy food to residents around the region that is supplied by local food producers in the Waiapu Valley.
So what am I doing now?
I’m involved with a few projects, ventures, initiatives and the daily life of our extended family:
My business partner Damian and I have formed a company with Nigel Slaughter, co-founder of Ligar, a company specialising in molecular imprinted polymers (MIPs). Our new company Matawai Bio specialises in the development of extraction processes to make natural ingredients for functional foods, pharmaceuticals & cosmetics. We’re talking to some of the biggest global ingredients companies about what they’re looking for and what we can help with. We have a process engineer working for us on some interesting extracts from fruit waste and a major research programme getting underway to investigate a broad range of fruit, vegetable and native plant extracts. Through our experience with kānuka, kina and other indigenous organisms we have worked with a group of indigenous rights lawyers to develop what we think is an innovative arrangement for intellectual property ownership that provides kaitiaki groups and the organism and its ecosystem with ownership and control of any IP developed.
IO Ltd is another company I’ve founded to focus on the development of fully proven pharmaceuticals derived from indigenous organisms. We have three projects working with a number of iwi and hapū across the country as well as some smart researchers in Aotearoa, Australia, Europe and the Middle East. I’m super excited about these, even though they are unlikely to ever make it to a fully approved medicine (hardly any pharmaceuticals do), the process we work through on the plant chemistry, cultivation/production systems, pre-clinical research and human trials is all super interesting (and expensive!), along with the opportunity to engage Māori in the medicines development process from the start.
On the issue of indigenous intellectual and cultural property rights, I have been working with Associate Professor Maui Hudson on Digital Sequence Information & the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. We have organised a series of consultations amongst interested Māori on issues around the collection, storage and utilisation of Digital Sequence Information from indigenous organisms. Perspectives from these hui have been fed back to Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade and Te Puni Kokiri officials to help inform the NZ government’s position in international negotiations part of COP15 on the Convention on Biological Diversity in Montreal in December. Last I heard the DSI Access and Benefit Sharing mechanism proposed by the state parties at COP15 sounded problematic but hopefully the door is still open to get a better system in place. Some of the relevant documents are here.
Māori + Medicines is an initiative I’ve been working on with University of Auckland researchers and commercialisation staff with support from researchers, entrepreneurs, legal experts and policy people around Aotearoa. We held our first small event in November and plan to do a larger conference in 2023. This has been a great opportunity to connect Māori with researchers developing medicines, to encourage Māori investment in the sector and support Māori medical researchers. Our future activities are focused on things like:
- Establishing the values & tikanga underpinning medicines development by and for Māori (including socio-economic justice issues, animal testing, genetic research, etc.
- Developing better mechanisms for indigenous IP (mātauranga, taonga, etc.) protection and utilisation.
- Building the Māori medicines development workforce.
- Understanding the barriers to and opportunities for more investment in non-standard pharmaceuticals (botanical drugs, traditional medicines, etc.)
In 2021 I was involved through HBLP in a series of regional meetings trying to understand the impacts of the rapid expansion of permanent plantation carbon farming in Tairāwhiti. Out of this I helped prepare a proposal to research the impacts of families involved in the forestry and farming sectors as tens of thousands of hectares have converted from pasture to plantation forestry in the past couple of years.
Te Weu Tairāwhiti is a small collective of local researchers that I have been involved with on this project and we’ve recently established a charitable trust to take the work further with a focus on land use and climate change. Te Weu has developed a number of educational resources during 2022 that are available on our website and we held a series of community hui in October and November to showcase the resources and start collecting feedback from local residents on their priorities. In 2023 we will be working with communities around the region looking at climate change risks and developing adaptation plans using deliberative processes.
The land block we live on is a microcosm of the issues for Māori landowners in our region. Tarsh is a Trustee and we’ve been looking at opportunities to help reduce erosion that is threatening large parts of the land. The Trustees are committed to recloaking the land with natives rather than pine trees, so they have retired about one third of the block from grazing stock and we have started planting thousands of native trees. We have also been looking at other potential uses like fruit/nut production trees and started planning for a papakainga (communal residential area) on the part of the block closest to the marae and existing residences.
The other kaupapa (issue) I’ve been involved with is advocating for the peaceful use of space via a volunteer group called Rocket Lab Monitor. We research the payloads Rocket Lab launches from Mahia and have been pushing to ensure New Zealand government stops allowing military clients to launch weapons technology from Aotearoa. Consultation on the NZ legislation and policy governing space activities is currently underway and the overwhelming response from citizens seems to be a desire to see military payloads excluded. There are lots of complex considerations but one of the big issues is that the NZ Space Agency is both the regulator and promoter of the space sector, so there’s an obvious conflict there. Follow Rocket Lab Monitor’s website and social media to keep up to date and see how you can contribute to ensuring NZ leads global efforts to keep space for peaceful purposes.
At a personal level I’m still a husband, father, son, brother and slack friend. Tarsh has been busy running the Puna Reo (Māori immersion Early Childhood Education centre) in Ruatorea, as well as leading the rebuild of one of her marae and being on the committees of two others plus the land block and a family trust. Our daughter Miria has almost finished her degree majoring in Anthropology and Māori, and she’s working at Te Aka Whaiora, the Māori Health Authority, until she finishes her final paper in June. Our boy Maioha got his Level 2 NCEA mid-year and left school to try adulting but has decided to return to do Year 13 in 2023. He loves his volleyball and it was fun to take him and his mates to a number of training camps and tournaments in 2022. My parents are still in Tauranga and its been wonderful with my sister Naera and her family living there, I try to get through at least once a month to see everyone but don’t feel super helpful from a distance. It’s been good to have work based in Tauranga and the Waikato as it provides another opportunity to spend time with the family and friends in the Bay of Plenty.
I turn 50 tomorrow (28/12) so that’s a bit weird but I like it. I am an introvert so running away to Europe was the best option to avoid a party of any kind – though I did have a lovely weekend with our extended Caddie family and three cousins (we have dozens of cousins as our grandparents had 12 children) in October who also turned 50 in 2022. I need to look after my body and brain better, and nurture the relationships most important to me.
Tarsh and I have had to do a lot of work on our relationship over the last few years and we’ve been thinking about how we can best help other couples to work through stuff before its too late. We all need support and often settle for a mediocre relationship or check out instead of doing the hard work required to maintain a healthy, vibrant partnership. I know we’ve still got a lot of work to do and always keen to hear about resources, activities and habits that have helped other couples. Attending a weekend workshop run by Imago New Zealand saved our relationship a few years back and we’re hoping to bring some of their stuff to others in the near future.
I’ve been doing research on my biological family – mostly through Ancestry.com and other genealogy websites but also through some work and personal connections to the various iwi I am connected to (Ngāti Pūkenga, Ngaati Hauaa, etc.) and global relations from Tonga and Europe. It’s fascinating to learn about the history of individuals and groups, life events and world events that influenced human migration and relationships. And I’m grateful to have established connections to relations on my biological mother’s and father’s sides.
We’re very lucky to be alive today but I feel we have some huge responsibilities to ensure there is a liveable planet for our descendants and other species – and essential to hold on to the best of our cultural traditions, ways of being and languages – into the future.
I love hearing from old and new friends, so please let me know what’s happening in your world sometime!