Harnessing the power of plants
Cynthia Hunefeld, a self-confessed ‘herbnerd’, has taken her passion for plants and launched her own business, HerbScience, which is focussed on bringing herbal medicine into the 21st Century.
Cynthia’s interest in plants and their potential for healing was cemented when she was just 10 years old.
After her father contracted a debilitating bacterial infection, Cynthia started going to the library and taking out every book about herbals she could—researching how plants protect themselves from bacteria and how they might be able to help her father.
Several years later, while studying towards an ethnobotany degree, Cynthia’s father ended up back in hospital with another infection that wasn’t responding to antibiotics. With his doctor’s support, Cynthia began treating him with a plant extract—ultimately curing him of his infection.
Since then, Cynthia has continued to pursue ethnobotany and has founded her own company, HerbScience, which is focussed on developing herbal medicines that are backed by modern science—all while completing a Master’s in Innovation and Commercialisation at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.
Cynthia’s years of work are now set to culminate in the launch of HerbScience’s first product, which uses plant extracts to treat urinary tract infections. Cynthia intends to launch the product in New Zealand by the end of 2020 with plans to launch it internationally after that.
“Right now, I’m focused on getting investor ready. It’s something I’m working pretty hard on,” says Cynthia. “I’ve got a 200-page thesis that I’m distilling into a workable business plan. Thankfully, over the last two years I’ve been able to interview lots of people who have been working in the field which has helped bring my theory into practice.”
Getting to this point hasn’t been without its challenges though. A big one for Cynthia is making sure her product isn’t cast aside as another ‘natural’ product that doesn’t work.
“Some products genuinely don’t work,” says Cynthia. “With natural medicines it’s just not the plant that you have to look at, it’s also the extraction method and the dosage. It’s just like coffee—every extraction method gives you different outcomes, different levels of caffeine and different flavours. It’s very much the same with natural medicines.”
An important part of Cynthia’s business plan is to use education to combat the stigma natural medicines sometimes have.
“Training and education are going to be a huge part of what I do with Herb Science. I want to make it easier for people to work out what is true and what isn’t,” says Cynthia.
A key part of Cynthia’s entrepreneurial journey so far has been the support she has received. Professors from Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Otago, as well as her mentor Dr Alex Semprini, have helped her with developing and testing the product, the University’s commercialisation arm, Wellington UniVentures, has provided her with support to develop the business, and Wellington School of Business and Government has given her access to The Atom—Te Kahu o Te Ao innovation space as a base to work from. Cynthia was also named 2019 Momentum Student Entrepreneur of the Year at the KiwiNet awards, received an AMP scholarship award, and was awarded pre-seed funding by the Momentum Advisory Board
“My husband has also been a big support, and so have my kids. We came to New Zealand 13 years ago for me to study and I’m still studying! He’s been really patient and supportive,” says Cynthia.
Legal support has also been a key in getting Herb Science to this point.
“I think the most valuable lesson for me has been to get legal support really early on. I read up on intellectual property protection but really understanding a contact or work order agreements, that is a specialised task,” says Cynthia. “I was really lucky that the Wellington Regional Development Agency provided me a grant for legal support. Getting support with intellectual property is absolutely key for researchers who want to commercialise their product.”
Cynthia has one piece of advice for budding entrepreneurs—be open to different perspectives.
“When I was 18 I travelled Australia by myself. I lived in the desert for a long time and learnt about plant medicine from the indigenous community. Traveling the world and learning other people’s perspectives really opened my mind to traditional healing practices and how tradition and science can be connected to develop the medicines of the future,” says Cynthia.
“Having your complete way of thinking challenged can be difficult but it’s hugely valuable. It brought me closer to my cultural heritage and inspired me to apply a holistic perspective to the innovation and commercialisation pathway of my products and to develop a comprehensive impact business model.”