Green chemistry project aims to create lipids for nutraceuticals

20 June 2018

Nelson research scientist Dr Ivan Kurtovic has received a $25,000 boost from KiwiNet’s Emerging Innovator Programme for a green chemistry project to create specialised lipids for use in nutraceutical and functional food manufacture.

Dr Kurtovic, an enzymologist in the Marine Industrial Biotechnology Team at Plant & Food Research, is working on enzyme technology that transforms lipids to have higher levels of desirable fatty acids for nutritive and therapeutic applications. 

Dr Kurtovic says, “The demand for sustainable green chemistry in industrial processes is increasing. Lipid transformation is often carried out using solvents or other techniques that are not environmentally-friendly. I’m exploring methods for enzymatic interesterification that can be used as an alternative, to achieve lipid transformations and produce highly bioavailable lipids enriched with Omega-3 fatty acids.”  

The Emerging Innovator funding has also allowed Dr Kurtovic to purchase several custom-built immobilised enzyme (lipase) reactors for transfer of the technology from the laboratory to prototype pilot scale. This has helped achieve the proof of principle needed to validate the new technology and attract further investment. 

“Thanks to KiwiNet, this is the first time I’ve been able to scale up my enzyme research and to test improvements in a more industry-relevant way,” says Dr Kurtovic. “I’m continuing to test different enzyme systems and optimise the scale up process to improve conversion and enrichment of the final product.” 

Dr James Hutchinson, CEO of KiwiNet, says: “One of New Zealand's fastest-growing food export categories is nutraceuticals. Consumers are increasingly interested in sustainable, natural and environmentally friendly products. Ivan and his team at Plant & Food Research are developing valuable enzymatic methods for creating lipids for the therapeutic market.  This research represents a great commercial opportunity for industry, in New Zealand and farther afield, to develop IP that can be used in their processes.”

Sue Muggleston, Intellectual Property Manager and Business Manager at Plant & Food Research, says: “It’s been fantastic working with Ivan, KiwiNet and partners to progress the commercial application of this research. In conjunction with an industry partner, we’re keen to further develop the commercial potential of this technology and make the most of opportunities in the nutraceuticals market.”

Dr Kurtovic, who completed his PhD at McGill University in Canada in 2011 while on sabbatical from Plant & Food Research, says his biggest takeaway from the Emerging Innovator Programme is being able to appreciate the transition from pure research to scale up, and then to commercialisation. “It’s been invaluable learning how to simplify and present my story, how to engage with IP experts, to understand how research can be commercialised and what the steps are.  I now have the confidence to attempt further scale ups and further applications of my research.”

The KiwiNet Emerging Innovator Programme, open to early career researchers based at universities and Crown Research Institutes across New Zealand, is designed to enable researchers to partner with a business and refine their project for market. It also boosts research with a commercial application at a critical time. 

Programme recipients receive expert legal advice from KiwiNet corporate partner MinterEllisonRuddWatts and IP advice from Baldwins, as well as $25,000 in cash towards the project from donations from the Norman F. B. Barry Foundation, which owns the Quality Hotel Parnell Limited.

John Smith, Chairman of the Norman F. B. Barry Foundation says, “KiwiNet and the Foundation share the common goal to inspire young scientists to seek out opportunities to apply their knowledge to benefit the community and the economy.  We’re very proud of Ivan and the other emerging innovators – they’re creating some seriously clever science with a commercial focus.”

Emma Timewell
Communications Manager, Corporate Communications,
Plant & Food Research Mt Albert,
120 Mt Albert Road, Sandringham
Auckland, 1025, New Zealand
Telephone: +64-9-925 8692
Mobile: +64-21-2429 365

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