Exploring opportunity on multiple fronts: How Matawai Bio is harnessing advancements in AI and taking a kaitiaki-led approach to develop a new market opportunity

Nigel Slaughter is a big ideas, deep-dive-learning type of person. And he isn’t one to shy away from a challenge. In 2011, he cofounded Ligar, a company dedicated to extracting high-value molecules from a wide range of liquids.

Building on that experience, he and a group of entrepreneurs saw an opportunity:

There is a growing worldwide demand for natural bioactives extracted from indigenous plants. In fact, one study shows that up to 80% of the developed world uses some form of natural medicine for treating everything from muscle aches and the common cold to heart disease and dementia*.

In the past, it’s taken decades to both prove the health benefits of a new naturally derived ingredient and bring it to market, partially because the natural-products industry has limited funding for research and development**.

But advancements in AI are changing this landscape dramatically, making it easier to discover ingredients, analyse trial data, and prove individual benefits.

And so, Nigel, along with Manu Caddie (ex-Rua Bioscience), formed Matawai Bio to explore this opportunity.

 Their aim: identify and verify opportunities to develop production and markets for indigenous natural extracts. And, in doing so, to work alongside iwi, hapū, marae, and Māori landowners to create kaitiaki-IP – so utilisation decisions and benefits are retained by the kaitiaki community.

Not a small undertaking, but with an ambitious five-year timeline, the team is underway and making significant progress.

Two promising indigenous plants go under the microscope.

The team began their research with 11 native plants and narrowed it down to berries from two native tree species. One berry is similar to a plant from another part of the world that is recognised globally as a superfood ingredient.

In early 2024, the team began harvesting both berries with involvement of iwi and hapū. Throughout the year, they’ll be working on extracting the bioactive properties, looking at processing options, and creating flavour profiles. And, they’ll use AI to speed up the process of identifying functional benefits of the berry extracts for humans.

Alongside the berry harvesting, the team met with an innovative New Zealand company to determine a product development pathway. These conversations are helping the team think about how they might scale growth: managing production costs, setting appropriate pricing, and navigating regulatory requirements.

A kaitiaki-IP relationship begins to take shape.

Matawai Bio engaged with kaitiaki organisations, including an iwi based in Tauranga that Manu has whakapapa to. Through face-to-face hui and ongoing discussions, the team developed an IP arrangement for the R&D phase, as well as a discussion paper detailing the relevant issues and options.

Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that kaitiaki of indigenous species have full control over how extracts and IP derived from each plant are used and that the plant and ecosystems that support it in the wild have their interests represented in any commercial development – while also providing certainty and Freedom to Operate for researchers and commercialisation partners.

Nigel acknowledges that this is new territory, but territory that needs to be explored.

“We have a responsibility to honour the indigenous rights and responsibilities for indigenous species, and the rights of the species itself. This is a unique type of production storytelling, and it’s one that will enable more companies to work more ethically and fearlessly.”

For the team at Matawai Bio, the AGMARDT funding came at a crucial time: “We were at a tipping point, considering whether to push forward. The funding made it faster and easier to carry on. And, once AGMARDT was involved, other parties became more interested,” Nigel says.

Harnessing AI to accelerate research and prove health benefits.

Now that the proof-of-concept is complete, the team have a follow-on project underway that will further develop kaitiaki protections and verify the molecular content of the berries.

This is where AI is playing a big role. In fact, Nigel received an AGMARDT Capabilities Grant to upskill in the use of AI through two MIT Sloan courses.

The team are already using AI to review data from the chemical analysis of extracts, as well as potential interactions between those molecules and the human proteome. From here, the machines are generating predictions for likely health benefits and safety assessments of the extracts.

Nigel has been applying his learnings and connecting with medical professionals in New Zealand who are interested in precision medicines based on the biology of each patient.

 He gets excited just talking about the potential: “Large language models combined with machine learning tools can support just about every stage of the process – from initial analyses to trial simulations. The ability to cope with the vast amount of data that comes when studying multiple molecule interactions is game-changing and will lead to rapid developments in personalised health.”

*Source:  www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0273230020300738

**Source: www.nutritionaloutlook.com/view/artificial-intelligence-is-revolutionizing-ingredient-discovery