Starfish synergy: NZ upcycled skin care project sees commercialisation opportunity fuelled by Asia demand

By Si Ying Thian

- Last updated on GMT

Commercial opportunity for NZ collagen skin cream farmed from starfish fuelled by demand in Asia © Getty Images
Commercial opportunity for NZ collagen skin cream farmed from starfish fuelled by demand in Asia © Getty Images

Related tags upcycling circular beauty blue economy Indigenous peoples

Kiwi researchers say that industry partnerships are underway to commercialise a skin cream farmed from starfish collagen.

Researchers from Cawthron Institute and NZ Institute for Plant and Food Research developed a skin cream harvesting the collagen of the starfish over a two-year period.

Funded by the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge, this project came out of an attempt to tame the starfish population that was decimating shellfish at Ōhiwa Harbour – effecting the food supply of the local Maori people.

Project representative Dr. Matt Miller told CosmeticsDesign-Asia​ that the team had pursued the upcycling idea as it fits in well with the Maori’s beliefs of finding some use for starfish in the ecosystem instead of discarding them altogether.

Why collagen?

After conducting a chemical analysis on all the properties of the starfish for a year, the researchers went with collagen as it was “a low-hanging fruit.”

Firstly, it was easier to extract compared to other substances such as calcium carbonate, protein, and other nutrients used in supplements or fertilisers. Secondly, there was already a demand for collagen in cosmetics, and this market pathway was relatively easier to nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals – which typically takes many years of development.

Dr. Miller elaborated on Asia’s rising demand for collagen cosmetics: “There’s lots of opportunities in New Zealand. Not just in starfish, but in a lot of our marine collagen species to have bigger impacts across Asia. We have commercial products from fish skins in production right now.

“I think South East Asia and Asia in general have a very huge demand for such products. So, I think it’s good synergy there. I think there is huge possibilities of us, working with people from New Zealand and from Asia to develop high value products.”

Sustainable on all fronts

While there is already a market for starfish creams in South Korea​, Dr. Miller believes that an NZ-branded product has “real social and cultural consciousness​” when it is produced by the indigenous communities.

Marketing can go even to a higher place with indigenous branding rights, social and cultural branding behind it. So, I think there is a huge appetite for high quality products like this. But that won't be matched by good production and sound ecological sustainability credentials.”

That said, a key project consideration was scaling production accessibly for the Maori. In this regard, the researchers had worked with a collagen chemist to develop a production process that fits into their traditional workspace.

Collagen skin cream developed from starfish © The University of Waikato

According to the team, 60 bottles of skin cream were presented as a proof-of-concept to the Maori, and Dr. Miller claimed that the idea was well-received by them.

“We worked with an ecologist with 15 to 20 years of experience with the Maori community. When we presented our work, they’ve been highly receptive to this, and keen to find some use out of starfish. Like I said before, they're very against just throwing these things away. They want to see how it could work in their community. When we create something physical instead of talking about a concept, they can feel that, run it on their face, and go “actually, we could make this”, and it becomes a more organic approach.”

On upcoming project plans, Dr. Miller said: “Next step developing the commercialisation pathway, and connections with the industry partners to make it a marketable product. There are a lot of business models, like they can own it all or work with other partners. The business model must be worked out with the Maori. While it’s exciting times, it may take a longer consultation than it would be if it was purely a commercial enterprise.”

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