Bioactives company adds its zest to improve health

Zestt Wellness co-founders Darcy Schack and Anna Campbell in their Rattray St premises. PHOTO:...
Zestt Wellness co-founders Darcy Schack and Anna Campbell in their Rattray St premises. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Anna Campbell describes herself as a startup person.

The former managing director of agribusiness consulting firm AbacusBio is now pursuing her long-time interest in plant bioactives.

While her AbacusBio journey — which would finish at the end of this year — had been "amazing", the exciting and fast-moving nature of a startup was where her heart was, she said.

Last year, during Covid-19 lockdown, Dr Campbell and Darcy Schack co-founded Zestt Wellness, developing a natural product to support immunity and help improve lung health.

The pair had met several years ago; Canadian-born Mr Schack had physics and engineering degrees and extensive food industry experience.

He also suffered from an autoimmune disease known as sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that affected multiple organs in the body, but mostly the lungs and lymph glands.

He took immunosuppressants and was keen to develop products which enhanced both his and others’ health and natural immune systems.

He and Dr Campbell, whose PhD was in plant biotechnology, combined their scientific knowledge to develop the product.

As well as her science background, Dr Campbell had significant commercial experience, spending 15 years with AbacusBio, including six as managing director, leading an international team working in more than 20 countries on food and agricultural programmes.

The pair were joined by their business partners, Danny Chan and Lisa Shi, who were both very experienced in business.

In her agribusiness role, Dr Campbell said she had always been talking about value-adding and how more should be done to lift the value of products before they left New Zealand. Launching Zestt was time to put her money where her mouth was, she quipped.

She and Mr Schack initially started swapping science papers, and then a pivotal moment came when she was doing work for AbacusBio in Sri Lanka, working with a company interested in growing more medicinal herbs as part of a salad mix. Plants were identified in traditional Ayurvedic medicine.

A professor of medical botany took her into the mountains in Sri Lanka, a month before Covid-19 hit New Zealand last year, and, while she was there, she pondered whether she could "do a better job in the world".

Covid-19 was a particularly scary time for someone like Dr Schack who was immuno-comprised and he went into lockdown two weeks ahead of the official lockdown period.

The pair had already been looking at plant bioactives for sarcoidosis and lung inflammation but Covid-19 was a catalyst to make them work faster, she said.

It was about getting as healthy as possible "to handle what might come at us" and they were delighted with the reviews that Zestt Wellness was receiving from customers.

They utilised the skills available at the University of Otago, Dr Campbell quipping they had asked "millions of questions".

Their business approach was going direct to consumers and the pair stressed that wellness was for everyone — not just the fit and well — and it was never too late to start.

"Everyone deserves to think about their own wellness, not just fit beautiful 20-year-olds who can tie themselves in knots," Dr Campbell said.

At the moment, the pair were doing the manufacturing while they employed their respective children to help with packaging.

They would seek to do some contract manufacturing as they wanted to be an innovation hub and have that connection to consumers.

Although the intention was global, having a relationship with consumers was very important.

Sales had "taken off" and several other products were also in development.

sally.rae@odt.co.nz

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