Adrian Spencer, AgriFutures Australia Researcher of the Year

11.04.22

A sampan is a traditional wooden boat operated in China and throughout Southeast Asia. Made up of just three simple planks, they are commonly used to take produce and other goods from their source to a marketplace. It’s the inspiration for the name behind Adrian Spencer’s company name – Sampano – a business underpinned by research and development that’s delivering Australian seaweed and algae to the emerging health product market.

To understand the success of Sampano and Adrian Spencer, you must understand the hard work and serendipity that went into building them both.

Born and raised in the small Victorian town of Beechworth, Adrian studied Biological Sciences straight out of high school in tandem with part time work at a small horticultural operation.

“The farmers I was working for were incredibly innovative and grew everything from cherries, chestnuts, berries and stone fruit,” Adrian remembered.

“They actually pioneered the chestnut market into Japan, and while I was simply a student working as a farm hand, I got a front row seat to not only seeing the bumps and bruises farming can deliver, but I also learnt about the need for constant innovation and the worth of diversification.”

Adrian went on to complete a fourth-year honours program in geosciences which removed him from the temperate climes of Victoria when he landed a graduate position with a mining company, travelling to remote, outback locations.

“It was an incredible time in my life, being about to work in exploration in beautiful, harsh locations throughout Australia,” he said.

In 2000 Adrian moved back to Melbourne and pivoted again – this time taking on a role with corporate giant Ernst & Young working in their tax division to assist the new R&D Tax Incentive.

“It was a substantial change in career on paper, but my bosses were clear that they have enough accountants and lawyers in the team – they wanted someone who’d had experience on the ground with agriculture and mining and I had that,” Adrian explained.

“We were working out who satisfied the definition of R&D and if it made them applicable for the incentives on offer. It was an incredible experience and I got to work on a lot of different grant and funding programs for the innovation and growth of Australian companies, which gave me a broader understanding of funding requirements for R&D development.

“There’s a lot of power in understanding what can drive or hinder a business and I realised pretty quickly that a lot of problems can be fixed – or made more challenging – with money.”

The role gave Adrian a front row seat to seeing R&D both fail and succeed.

“I saw that the people and companies that did R&D well set themselves up early to be successful in implementing it,” he said.

“So many companies did the research, but it was experimental, so they didn’t know how to commercialise it to industry and take the next step.”

This realisation helped Adrian and his wife build their own consultancy firm, GrantReady, in 2006 to help bridge funding get to the right places and offer access to funding to companies ready to deliver their research into the marketplace.

That company led to the couple developing GrantGuru – advising and supporting governments to be more effective in where and how funding is offered. And it’s here that the seed for Sampano was planted.

“One of our clients, Swisse Wellness, was talking to us about the need to access more local resources. The health market imported a lot of raw ingredients to the tune of $1billion annually into Australia,” Adrian said.

“That conversation was the impetus for Sampano – the plan to build local value chains across local areas.”

But like all things that sound simple – Adrian realised quickly, that their vision was not an easy one.

“It felt like a straightforward idea to source local ingredients and then offer them to market, but there was a huge gap, and that gap was research,” he said.

“We wanted to bridge that gap because in Australia we grow almost everything and what we don’t grow, we absolutely can.”

And so, the research into seaweed algae began, again off the back off discussions with Swisse Wellness.

“They told us that they source Omega 3 fish oil from krill, but they were open to exploring a more sustainable source because the fresh water ecosystems are disrupted by large scale fishing that can occur,” Adrian said.

“The question then was, can we source Omega 3 from algae and just go to the source? When algae can be grown and harvested locally it’s much easier supply for obvious reasons.

“So, we put a team together and discovered CSIRO in Hobart have the Australian National Algae Culture Collection so we connected with them and worked together with a commercial lens so we could do our research from a market perspective.

“We then brought in a company named Marinova as an industry partner which has been a crucial step for us. Marinova harvest and process seaweed, so effectively we put the value chain together for the progression of getting to commercialisation – researcher, processing, marketer.”

With more than 1200 species of macro and micro algae found in Australia, Adrian said the product is heavily underutilised – for now.

“This is a wave that’s coming and it’s incredible to be riding it. There will be lots more interest and investment in the next few years and I have no doubt it will be a powerful industry,” he said.

“We have an incredible natural native supply of algae, and the Australian environment is ideal for algae growth. Algae was seen as a biofuel alternative for many years, but this research we’re doing shows there’s a great pivot available here and the past research work and infrastructure that was invested into biofuel possibilities can absolutely be used in the health and nutraceutical field.

“We went looking for collagen in seaweed and while the quality wasn’t high enough, we have discovered that in certain species there is a collagen degradation inhibitor, so we’re talking a natural prevention, not a cure here, and that the potential to give us a unique marketing advantage.”

It’s been one epic journey for the lad from Beechworth, and by his own admission, he knows his younger self would have been surprised to see a future focused on algae and seaweed.

“Through Sampano we’ve explored so many opportunities and what drives me is what I learnt back when I witnessed the needs and challenges and opportunities for primary producers back in my student days,” Adrian said.

“Today I feel that I’m playing a helpful role in helping Australian markets diversify and that makes me so pleased because I can draw on all that research and knowledge that I’ve been privileged to gain from the people I’ve worked for and with over the years.

“There’s no doubt that research takes longer than you think, and it is harder than you think. You must be prepared to find something you didn’t expect and be able to pivot – those unexpected findings don’t always have to be a negative and Sampano is proof of that.”

Adrian will use the Researcher of the Year Award bursary to attend the European Algae Industry Summit.

“While there are many forums internationally, this is the most comprehensive and focused of its type in terms of industry research collaboration,” he said.

“The Australian industry is held back currently by a knowledge gap around the latest research and industry advancements, in terms of growing, harvesting, refining and biomanufacturing.

“We are reliant on what is already happening around the world, particularly in Europe so by attending this summit, I will be able to connect and learn from the latest breakthroughs and advancements directly from the researchers/proprietors of this information.

“This will fill gaps in my knowledge that is not accessible locally – and I’m incredibly excited to bring that knowledge back and share it with local emerging industry.”

Adrian’s project was supported by CSIRO and Marinova with funding from AgriFutures Australia and Swisse Wellness.”

To read the research report which led to Adrian being named the AgriFutures Australia Researcher of the Year, visit: https://agrifutures.com.au/product/the-algae-and-seaweed-opportunity-an-australian-prospect/

 

Adrian Spencer