Humble Bee is an early-stage biotech startup company headquartered in Wellington, New Zealand. The startup is the first of its kind in the trillion-dollar global plastics industry and is built on the idea that the solitary masked bee's cellophane-like nesting material is not only water-repellent, as expected, but also resistant to high temperatures, strong chemicals, and flames.
Humble Bee is now on the verge of reverse-engineering the nesting material in a bid to manufacture a biodegradable substitute to plastic on a large scale and at a competitive price.
"Plastic particles and chemicals have permeated ecosystems and organisms around the world, from fetal blood of babies to the most remote Arctic lakes; it's so pervasive, it's terrifying," its founder Veronica Harwood Stevenson said.
"There are many types of plastics, and we're looking at one type, but what we're working on has useful industrial properties, and I believe it has applications in multiple industries."
The startup's idea started when Ms. Harwood-Stevenson came across a throwaway line in a research paper about how a species of solitary bee's nesting material was "cell phone-like" and had the potential to be a bioplastic. Struggling to find enough "hylaeus" bees in New Zealand, she ventured to Noosa, Queensland, where she came in contact with Chris Fuller of Kin Kin Native Bees, who by chance had just discovered a way to trap nest bees from the same family using special wooden blocks.
Convinced she was on to something unique, she funded the research with her house deposit and prize money from Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency’s Bright Ideas Challenge, which proved the lining’s plastic-like properties.
Ms. Harwood-Stevenson is currently living in Wellington, which is solidifying its reputation as a strong startup hub, where she works with the Victoria University's Ferrier Research Institute to study the bees. "We are at an early stage, but we're working on some manufacturing techniques," she said. "It is about biomimicry, about copying what is in the natural environment, and we've been doing it in design for centuries, from plane wing design inspired by birds of prey to train shapes reflecting bird beaks.”
The startup secured $NZ160,000 ($147,000) in the first investment round and is planning for $N500,000 in the second. Sparkbox supports it, Go Global Day One, and NZVIF. The company has also been promised up to $N120,000 by the New Zealand government agency Callaghan Innovation.