If you had to guess which country in the world produced the most sheep, you might be tempted to say New Zealand. You may be surprised to hear that the country with the most sheep is now China with 175 million. New Zealand with around 27 million doesn’t even make it into the top five. That’s largely because New Zealand’s dairy industry has taken over now, accounting for more than 30% of the country’s exports. For the remaining sheep farmers in New Zealand, and there are still plenty of them, it’s a sinking industry that’s suffering from commoditization. One man helping to turn this around is award-winning sheep breeder Andrew Ramsden. What Washington State has managed to do with their Cosmic Crisp apple, Mr. Ramsden hopes to do for New Zealand’s sheep industry with his Astino DFC sheep breed.
Breeding sheep for optimal traits is something that Mr. Ramsden has been working on for decades. One of his prior success stories is Te Mana Lamb, treasured by the world’s top chefs for its incredible flavor profile which results from a different type of fat, an intramuscular fat, higher in Omega-3 with marbling on a micro-scale.
Plant-based protein of the best kind – Credit: Te Mana Lamb
It’s what Kobe Beef did for beef eaters, and it doesn’t behave like regular lamb during preparation and cooking, meaning it not only tastes better, but it looks better on the plate. Creating and selling a premium product from sheep is what the New Zealand sheep industry needs to come back from the doldrums. The process of developing a new type of value-added lamb requires a breeding objective – find the breeds where there are strengths and select those traits to carry forward. Now, Mr. Ramsden is using this same method to create the world’s most valuable functional wool fibre which is now being sold under the brand name “Astino.”
People are now aware of wool’s amazing properties thanks to Merino wool, a material that’s exploded in popularity in recent years because of its functional performance, especially for travelers. Fall into a river wearing cotton and you might die from exposure, but wool provides insulating properties, even when wet. The fibers manage moisture such as water or sweat while remaining dry on the fibre surface increasing comfort, are fire-resistant, odor-resistant, bacteriostatic, and biodegradable. The popularity of wool, even the Merino wool, hasn’t done much for New Zealand sheep farmers though. That’s because it’s become just another commodity where the cheapest producers – like China – are able to undercut everyone else on price. That’s why Mr. Ramsden focused his expertise on developing a breed of sheep with superior wool that is protected by intellectual property. His flagship sheep breed, Astino, has high-quality wool fibers that are of a high consistency and designed to deliver superb air filtration performance.
Farmers that raise Astino sheep can expect to sell the wool at a 150% premium for the micron grown. The breed has been optimized for other characteristics as well, for example, they live longer and have a lambing rate of 1.5 lambs per year, a number that’s much better than other breed alternatives from similar country. Wool produced by these sheep is being purchased by a startup called Lanaco which is going to market with a range of premium air filtration products. And there’s a huge opportunity in front of them.
If water is the new oil, then air is the new water. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that “nine out of ten people breathe polluted air every day,” with air pollution being considered “the greatest environmental risk to health” given over 90% of people on this planet breathe air that’s not of an acceptable quality. According to the American Lung Association, you inhale about 2,000 gallons of air per day. That’s enough to fill a swimming pool, and your lungs have a difficult enough time processing it all without the added complexity of pollutants. The need to filter pollutants out of the air has any number of use cases, from wearing a face mask when you’re biking around the streets of Beijing to filtering air while mankind makes the trip to Mars in order to find the next planet we can occupy when the one we’re living on goes pear-shaped. It’s the NewSpace use case that brought Lanaco onto the global stage when none other than NASA came sniffing around asking about their premium wool filters which may help humans colonize other planets.
We largely cover space travel in the context of small satellites and space tourism, but there are much bigger ambitions on the horizon. And we’re not just talking about Mr. Musk. NASA is building a human spacecraft for deep-space missions called Orion. On its first mission, Artemis 1, Orion will venture thousands of miles beyond the Moon over the course of about three weeks. Flights with astronauts will start in early 2020s, and that’s why NASA came knocking on Lanaco’s door.
A technology scout came sniffing around Lanaco because their wool filters can do things that synthetic filters can’t. We already know about some of wool’s amazing properties for clothing, and similar properties exist for filtration. For example, wool filters are exclusively capable of filtering out formaldehyde from the air. They’re also uniquely capable of filtering out impurities in a spacecraft if there’s an on-board fire – like molten plastics. If the technology is good enough to find its way onto NASA’s spaceships, then it’s certainly suitable for any other number of industrial applications of which there are many.
In particular, health applications are where people’s lives can be improved or even saved. Over 4 million deaths a year can be attributed to air pollution says an article by The Scientist which goes on to talk about how “the health effects of air pollution go beyond birth weight and preterm birth and may stay with the affected individuals their whole lives.” One example of a premium product that can directly impact people’s exposure to air pollution is the face mask.
Spend some time in Asia and you’ll notice lots of people walking around wearing face masks. If you go to the doctor with the flu, you’ll leave the office with a face mask. The primary use case in these collective societies isn’t to keep the wearer from getting sick, it’s to prevent others from catching the wearer’s illness. Disposable face masks can be found just about everywhere, and it makes sense that something so intimate should be created as a premium product that combines fashion with functionality. Designer Karen Walker fashioned a face mask cover that comes with interchangeable filters.
HELIX Filter Media provides superior electrostatic performance, capturing over 99.85% of PM0.1 particles and filtering out more than 99.99% of airborne bacteria. Since it’s created of wool, it’s the world’s most breathable filter media that’s pleasant to inhale through thanks to an infusion of New Zealand Manuka oil extract. Anti-bacterial qualities help to reduce the risk of being infected by colds and flu. It can also retain toxins such as formaldehyde. As for the price point, you can pick one up along with three filters for around $60.
Upwards of 30% of New Zealand’s exports are to China alone, a country that’s obsessed with health and already wears face masks as a social norm. The Chinese are particularly attuned to the health of infants and children, and a bit of education combined with their affinity towards the Silver Fern brand could make Lanaco air filters a product every Chinese person keeps in their house – in other words, one in five people on this planet. But the Chinese market is just part of the story. The fact that NASA finds this technology useful for NewSpace applications means there’s as much money to be made in other high-value applications.