A natural entrepreneur

Published Jun 28, 2019

Antibiotic-resistant infections are predicted to cause more deaths than cancer by 2050, yet major pharmaceutical companies have been steadily moving away from antibiotic research, focusing their R&D efforts on more profitable therapeutic ventures instead.

One entrepreneurial Victoria University of Wellington student—Cynthia Hunefeld—is on a mission to solve the problem following her discovery of a novel herbal extract that could potentially resolve some bacterial infections naturally, i.e. without antibiotics. Viclink is working alongside Cynthia to help her achieve this most personal of missions.

She was just 10 years old when her father fell sick with an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection, causing serious damage to his brain and other organs. The former firefighter and athlete was, sadly, one of the one-in-six people who suffer lasting consequences from such an infection, leaving him in a wheelchair.

Always interested in plants, Cynthia can remember wondering if nature held the answers to healing her father; her German-born mother often used plants to solve a multitude of health problems. “Once I left school, I decided to connect tradition with science and study ethnobotany—the use of plants as medicine in other cultures—together with clinical herbal medicine and clinical nutrition,” says Cynthia.

When her dad got sick again 12 years ago, antibiotics failed to work once more. She says his doctors welcomed her idea to try plant extracts to heal him as they were out of options. Within a week, he was out of hospital.

“It was a defining moment for me,” Cynthia says. “I wanted to go even deeper, and learn more about the science behind plants-as-medicine, to understand exactly what makes them effective.” Over the years, she studied hundreds of plants, to see how the active constituents worked and to determine whether the therapeutic doses would be safe for human use. 

Cynthia and her husband subsequently moved from The Netherlands to New Zealand, where she signed up for a post-graduate diploma in clinical research at Victoria University of Wellington. She also introduced herself to Viclink, the University’s commercialisation office, to get advice on how to create a business—HerbScience—out of her research. “From the very beginning my goal has been to get my discoveries out into the marketplace, where they can actually help people,” she says. “I knew Viclink had the experience and expertise to help me do that.” 

As part of its focus on supporting student entrepreneurs, Viclink has acted as a sounding board for Cynthia—and connected her with the right people and funding opportunities to help develop her idea. Emily Sullivan, Viclink’s Student Entrepreneurship Manager, also helped Cynthia to secure a spot at ‘The Atom’—a partnership between Viclink and the Victoria Business School that provides a place for students to start their entrepreneurial journeys. 

Choosing to focus on one type of infection for her proof-of-concept, Cynthia selected urinary tract infections (UTIs) caused by E. coli bacteria—the most common bacterial infection in the world, but one which is becoming increasingly difficult to treat due to antibiotic resistance.

“I’d already gathered evidence to suggest that my particular plant extract could assist with UTIs—it’s many, many times stronger than cranberries, the only other plant-based product currently associated with the treatment of infections in the urinary tract,” she says. 

“But I needed to conduct more laboratory tests to validate the efficacy of the formulation, to ensure it’s completely evidence-based and of the highest quality—and that’s when things started to get really expensive.” 

Cynthia says she will be forever grateful to the student-led Wellington Momentum Committee—a strategic partnership involving Return on Science, Viclink and KiwiNet—who focus on providing support, advice and funding to student entrepreneurs. 

“I was actually considering having to sell my car to pay for the lab testing when I found out that I had received $25k from the Momentum Committee to fund product development,” she explains. “They are such an invaluable resource for students who are developing early-stage concepts because other funders—such as angel investors—generally only invest in products that are already market-ready.” 

Cynthia says the support she’s received from the Committee has been just as valuable as the funding. “The development of nutraceuticals is a complex area of business, so it was great to be able to talk to people who’d ‘been there, done that’ and learn from their experiences.” 

With 50 to 60 percent of adult women affected by UTIs at least once in their life, Cynthia is keen for women to benefit not only from using her product, but also from the production of it. 

“I’m aiming to source the raw ingredients I need through women’s groups in the Pacific Islands. Teaching women how to grow medicinal plants organically will give them a new skillset and an additional income stream that will help their families,” she says. 

Cynthia has her sights set on becoming a market leader in high quality nutraceuticals and, with a bit of help from partners such as Viclink, plans to export overseas. 

“Treating UTIs is hopefully just the start,” she says. “In addition to treating other infections, there is also potential for the extract to be used for anti-ageing purposes, so watch this space!”

For more information about HerbScience, email Cynthia 

To find out more about how Viclink can support student entrepreneurs, email Emily Sullivan.