100 Years of Cawthron

May 2022

NZ’s largest and most successful private research organisation is celebrating 100 years of research endeavour.

The Cawthron Institute, NZ’s largest and most successful private research organisation, is celebrating 100 years of research endeavour. The Institute and its staff have won many accolades in the past, and continue to be at the winning end of science in New Zealand. The Institute won two of the Ko Tātou This Is Us 2021 Biosecurity Award categories. These awards are supported through MPI’s business unit, Biosecurity New Zealand, recognising the roles scientists play in eliminating or protecting New Zealand from pests and diseases.


The Institute was named after businessman Thomas Cawthron, whose bequest allowed the founding and early funding of the Institute from the 1920s. Cawthron arrived in Nelson from the UK with his parents in 1849. New Zealand was supposed to be the land of opportunity, but the only prospects locally for him were labouring on farms. He chose instead to work for a relative in Wellington to learn the business of merchant shipping and trading. In 1852 he left to join the gold rush in Victoria, Australia, but rather than digging for gold he earned it by providing supplies to the miners and mining towns.  A few years later he returned to Nelson and became involved in developing a coal mine, in roading and eventually became a shipping agent, investor and merchant. Retiring with considerable wealth, he made a number of gifts to the people of Nelson, the largest of which by far was his bequest to establish “an industrial and technical school institute and museum in Nelson, to be called the Cawthron Institute”.  He died in 1915.


The Institute opened in 1921 (five years before the DSIR was formed) and soon established itself as a source of good science supporting local and national primary industries. Early research projects ranged from tomato and apple pests and diseases to soil surveys and analytical work for a meat company. In the 1930s Cawthron scientists solved the problem of bush sickness, a wasting disease of sheep and cattle, identifying cobalt deficiency as the cause. 


While the demand for research continued to increase over the decades, funding was an ongoing problem, and staff numbers increased only slowly. Nevertheless the Institute developed significant expertise in laboratory analysis, entomology and fresh and sea water problems that were especially significant to the Nelson region. 


The change to science funding in the 1990s – while resulting in the demise of some government science institutions –  proved to be a boon to the Institute. Its familiarity with the competitive science funding model and the involvement of industry in research planning and funding, along with its strategic expertise in fresh water and marine research, enabled it to win contracts and attract staff to fulfil them.


Since then it has gone from strength to strength, and today the Cawthron Institute has a staff of around 300 on several campuses in and near Nelson city. In May 2021 the first stage of the Cawthron National Algae Research Centre was opened, substantially funded by a grant of $6 million from the Provincial Growth Fund. This facility allows the Institute to capitalise on its expertise in algal research to produce high value extracts. Astaxanthin production is one example.  Algae-based super foods, and post-operative pain medication are just two of the other projects under way.


Seaweed production is shaping up to be a large industry, and research has shown that an endemic red seaweed fed as a supplement to cattle could reduce their methane production substantially. King salmon growth rates and health have benefited from Cawthron projects that have led to optimised diets and advanced diagnostic tools. Trials of a shellfish tower have shown that the concept has great potential as a farming system for mussel spat and oysters, and other species like scallops, lobsters, sponges and tunicates, particularly in coastal areas with limited space. Testing for methyl mercury and other toxins in seafoods is another area of special expertise for staff at the Institute.


The Institute and its staff have won many accolades in the past, and continue to be at the winning end of science in NZ. Recently the Institute has been named as a finalist in three Ko Tātou This Is Us 2021 Biosecurity Award categories, supported by MPI’s . They are a finalist for the Bioprotection Aotearoa Science Award, for an aquatic animal health research programme focused on supporting the resilience of New Zealand’s aquaculture sector by enabling informed and proactive farm health management. One of the tools arising from this work - the Aquaculture Outbreak Tracking Tool (AOTT) - has been nominated for the Mondiale VGL Innovation Award.  And the Leader of the Biosecurity team, Patrick Cahill, is a finalist in the AsureQuality Emerging Leader Award.


Joy Oakly has worked at Cawthron for over 50 years. In January 1970, straight out of college, she started as a technician, was supported to gain an NZCS, and moved steadily up the ranks to become a laboratory manager. In that role she travelled around New Zealand and the Pacific, training laboratory staff in how to run their labs to high standards. 


She says that when she first came to Cawthron they were working in orchards on  apples and pear pests and diseases, and on adding nutrients to the pakihi soils around Takaka. “Then Cawthron set up analytical laboratories and I became involved with that, working in the micro lab testing milk from treatment stations all around the top of the South Island and the lower North Island. Later the work expanded into the seafood industry, over time involving both fresh and sea water, and eventually food safety became a big part of my work,” she says. “It has been an amazing journey and at different times it has been pretty tough. When I first started there were only 40 staff and we were a close-knit community, all at morning tea together, we all knew each other and did things together.”


The role of women at the Institute has changed over the years. Joy says women tended to be in junior or support roles in the 70s, but in the 80s the then director encouraged pay equity and so women got better pay.  “Staff numbers have increased from 40 in one location when I started, to around 300 on different sites, so it is quite exciting. Staff have now become a lot more diverse with different skill sets – now we have people out on boats doing research on the water.”


“I left full-time employment in 1993 and started working part-time as a consultant. Quality assurance has become more and more important, and so now I am the quality person involved with a group that extracts toxic chemicals from marine algae, which could be used for pain relief. Cawthron monitors toxic chemicals in the shellfish and mussel growing areas around New Zealand. Mussels are affected because they are filter feeders and toxic algae go into their systems, and we extract those chemicals from the algae.””


Joy says that the biggest change she has seen in the analytical laboratory setup has  been the huge emphasis on food safety that has been developed for different industries. “Research in the marine environment has involved the mussel industry, salmon farming etc and that linked directly into the analytical laboratories. The advances in technology have been amazing – one of our analytical labs set up instrument methods for measuring toxins in shellfish, and that replaced using mice to measure toxins.  That was revolutionary in the industry. and we were the first country in the world to take up those tests.”


Current CEO Volker Kuntzsch has over 30 years of experience in the marine science and seafood industry.  For the seven previous years he was the chief executive of Sanford Ltd, before which he was the president of both Nippon Suisan (USA) and King & Prince Seafood Corp (USA). He was also the chief executive of King & Prince Seafood Corp.

In a statement made to the Nelson Chamber of Commerce in 2021, Volker noted: “Part of Cawthron’s great legacy over the past 100 years has been the ability of our scientists to identify emerging issues and find solutions to the problems of the day. A great example of our science helping industries to find innovative, sustainable solutions is Te Tau Ihu’s ocean economy, where 70 percent of New Zealand’s aquaculture is based. Our research helped to revolutionise the mussel industry through selective breeding and sustainable aquaculture farming methods.


And there is still so much potential for the aquaculture industry. Seaweed – or macroalgae - is set to become the third pillar of aquaculture alongside shellfish and finfish, and research underway could signal the establishment of an exciting new industry for New Zealand. Cawthron’s new National Algae Research Centre, opened at our Aquaculture Park last month, will enable the expansion of our algae research. From the extraction of microalgae properties for high-value nutra- and pharmaceutical products, through to ‘methane busting’ seaweed, there are endless possibilities for algae-based products and solutions. Our Centre will be an innovation hub, providing a bridge between science and commercial application.


Establishing thriving sectors that create high-value jobs is crucial to helping our region to prosper. The recently announced proposed Science and Technology precinct at the Port is another fantastic opportunity to create yet another hub of innovation and creativity. Cawthron is looking at relocating our laboratories to this site, which we hope will open up exciting new collaborations with other organisations working to deliver sustainable economic and environmental solutions for the ocean economy.


It is a fascinating time to be taking the helm at Cawthron, as we celebrate 100 years of delivering world-class science and look ahead to the next 100 years. I look forward to sharing my thoughts on how we build on Cawthron’s magnificent legacy and our role as a good ancestor at the Chamber’s Aspire conference in July.”


‘Ko Tātou This Is Us’ New Zealand Biosecurity Awards