Changing consumer tastes and a rise in use of synthetic fibres has reduced the importance of wool as an export earner since the 1990s.
Statistics NZ's most recent report on wool exports reveals the industry, which back in the 1920s made up more than a quarter of total exports, made less than 2% in 2011.
However, one Kiwi start-up insists New Zealand has a future in wool beyond carpets and clothing and has multiple applications for next-gen technologies involving the material.
Texus Fibre founder Nick Davenport says it is ironic that billions of dollars are spent on creating synthetic fibres that have the properties of wool.
As an engineer of synthetic materials for 20 years – Mr Davenport also runs Nexus Foams – Mr Davenport says the properties of wool are peerless.
Mr Davenport says Texus Fibre has been developing wool technologies for three years now and it is ready for commercial applications.
The company’s beachhead application will be filters for face masks for the general public or for workplace and mining environments
“Around the world, and particularly in China, people are increasingly worried about the increase in the quantity and toxicity of dust,” says Mr Davenport.
“The problem has grown to the point that the World Health Organisation recently classified outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic to humans.”
Mr Davenport recently traveled to the ShenZhen high-tech fair alongside Fisher & Paykel Healthcare, Gallagher Group and Power by Proxi to explore the Chinese market.
He says there is demand for its products such as its helix filter, which does not contribute to airborne pollution at any stage of its life cycle.
Those affected by air pollution are wary that the synthetic materials used for face masks create pollution themselves, he says.
Other uses for the materials can include next-to-skin applications and audio filters.
Chief financial officer Tracey Swinehart says the company has completed seed funding but is looking for more – in the millions - to develop the business, including IP protection and product development.
To date, the business has been funded by Mr Davenport with research grants from Wool Industry Research.
Mrs Swinehart says the business wants to follow the Gore-tex business model and build up a brand around the technology and material, which can be used in multiple products. Its research is headquartered in Auckland and it has a plant in Christchurch.
She says New Zealand can add a lot more brand value to wool and its properties based on its humidity control, moisture control and chemical absorption.
“We’ve got world class farming practices and an abundance of wool in New Zealand. We want to use that advantage in other markets.”