$3m grant boosts agri chemical research

SUE O'DOWD
Last updated 05:00 08/08/2014
Zelam research manager Paul Lobb and general manager Andrew Thompson check out a plantain and clover crop on one of the company’s research sites at Bell Block.
CHARLOTTE CURD/Fairfax NZ

STUDY: Zelam research manager Paul Lobb and general manager Andrew Thompson check out a plantain and clover crop on one of the company’s research sites at Bell Block.

Analytical chemist Jo Wollen at work in a Zelam laboratory.
CHARLOTTE CURD/Fairfax NZ
ANALYST: Analytical chemist Jo Wollen at work in a Zelam laboratory.

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Research funding will help a Taranaki chemical-manufacturing company develop products its customers want.

Zelam is one of 52 Taranaki businesses to have received government research grants in the past three years to help them take their ideas for products and services to market.

For the next five years 20 per cent of Zelam's eligible research costs will be refunded by Callaghan Innovation, a government agency that provides money to businesses that invest in research and development. Each year Zelam invests up to $3 million in chemistry and field trials.

The Callaghan funding endorsed what Zelam was already doing, said general manager Andrew Thompson, who has been with the company 12 years.

"A $3 million grant is a validation that we're doing everything right on the path of research and innovation."

Thompson said while the company had previously kept a low profile, it was now poking its head over the parapet.

"There's an exciting growth curve for the company and it won't be stopping in New Zealand."

The company had doubled its turnover in the last five years and he predicted it would do the same in the next five years.

Known for agrichemical brands like TAG G2 and Headstart, Zelam has one of the country's largest research teams outside universities and crown research institutes.

The company was established as Taranaki NuChem in 1988 by former Dow scientists Dr George Mason and Dr Peter Hayward to develop agrichemicals and timber treatments.

"Of our 47 staff, 17 are fulltime researchers," Thompson said. "Our research focus is on tried and true agrichemicals that are off-patent. By developing novel formulations and delivery mechanisms for these products, we are helping farmers to beat weeds, pest and diseases that prevent crops reaching full potential. We listen to feedback from our territory managers and distribution channels because they are our link to farmers."

The company's unique portfolio of products was driven by local markets and conditions and developed in New Zealand.

Its formulation chemists developed innovative mixes that were tested on its own research sites in Hawke's Bay, Canterbury and New Plymouth. Having five field staff allowed it to conduct more than 100 trials a year. "That's arguably a resource unmatched in New Zealand."

At its Bell Block facility, Zelam has microbiology, analytical and formulation laboratories for research and a quality control laboratory in its world-class manufacturing facility which produces hundreds of thousands of litres of chemicals a year.

Research manager Paul Lobb said Zelam made additions to compounds that had already been developed, took out patents and owned several world-first formulations.

"We have developed formulations that are effective at lower application rates than established products."

Zelam also produced formulations that allowed it to provide a one-drum product, rather than having to mix separate products that were not normally stable in water. An example was its liquid formulation for the herbicide called Headstart which used to consist of a granule that had to be activated by oil. So now farmers needed to buy only one can. "The uptake by farmers has been huge."

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Developing a new product took about three years by the time regulatory requirements were complied with.

The company prided itself on its ability to respond to the market, whether it was concerns about the growth of apricots in Otago or of avocados in the Bay of Plenty, eliminating thistle from plantain crops, or ways to manage fodder beet crops that were revolutionising beef farming, Lobb said.

- Taranaki Daily News

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