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Forest Herbs Research: Peter Butler.

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FOREST HERBS RESEARCH IS EXPERIENCING GROWING GLOBAL DEMAND FOR ITS CLINICALLY PROVEN ANTI-FUNGAL PRODUCTS MADE FROM A SINGLE VARIETY OF ANCIENT HOROPITO PLANT. NZBUSINESS TALKED TO ITS FOUNDER PETER BUTLER.

NZB: What is your background prior to setting up Forest Herbs Research, and how did the business come about?

PETER: I set up Forest Herbs Research Ltd over 30 years ago. Before that, I researched and wrote some popular history books.

I owned some land in the middle of a temperate rainforest and was curious about the properties of the multitude of plants in this forest. I utilised my research skills to investigate what science had been conducted on New Zealand's endemic flora. There was quite a lot carried out during the World Wars when we were worried about being cut off from outside pharmaceuticals. The stand-out paper I found was conducted on Horopito extracts and published by researchers at the University of Canterbury in 1982. These studies found that Horopito was as effective at killing Candida albicans as a very powerful (and side effect prone) pharmaceutical anti-fungal. This was the start of the Kolorex story.

NZB: what other native herbs have commercial potential that you're looking to develop?

PETER: We have conducted some preliminary research and growing trials on two other indigenous plants. It actually took us years of trial and error to work out how to sustainably grow and harvest horopito, to say nothing of convincing people who have never heard of the plant that it is worth taking. So we decided to focus on horopito and become a one-herb company. It is certainly enough work for a company like ours to establish Kolorex as a global niche brand. Our mission is 'to bring the benefits of New Zealand's unique herb, Horopito, to the world'.

NZB: You've been conducting R&D on Horopito for more than 20 years--why has it taken so long to get to market?

PETER: Kolorex has actually been available in New Zealand health stores and from naturopaths for over 20 years; it is just not well known here. New Zealand pharmacists instinctively recommend Canesten or similar pharmaceuticals for thrush and Candida overgrowth and New Zealand doctors have about half a day's training in plant medicine.

It's different in Europe where complementary medicine is mainstream. Doctors and pharmacists will recommend plant extracts or pharmaceutical medicines interchangeably, depending on the patient and stage of the condition.

That is why our main markets have traditionally been in Europe. In fact, Kolorex is Italy's leading natural anti-candida brand. But there were years of R&D getting to that position. First, we did a survey of New Zealand's wild Horopito population to find out which one was the most potent in terms of its ability to kill the Candida albicans fungus. We found a five times variation in strength. We call our cultivated strain Kolorex Horopito.

NZB: What have been the biggest milestones for Forest Herbs Research so far?

PETER: The first harvest of the horopito plantation was a huge milestone. It's difficult to grow, and temperamental! It doesn't really like to be cultivated, so we invested a lot of time and effort figuring this out. We are always planting new land in anticipation of increased sales but you have to be an optimist, because it takes five or more years before the plants are big enough for harvesting.

Another big milestone for me is seeing new research being conducted on our Kolorex products. Our Italian distributors have organised serious clinical trials of up to two years that have been published in peer-reviewed journals. This is a great sales tool, but also gives a sense of pride that New Zealand is contributing something to the body of natural medicine.

NZB: What have been the biggest challenges in maintaining growth and momentum?

PETER: We've pretty much stuck to our core strengths --some see this as being strategic and having focus, but it also means we've missed opportunities. We're really good at growing and processing horopito. We're even better at making highly effective products based on research. Where we've struggled over the years is bringing enough sales and marketing capability into the business. As a consequence, we have been slow to get profile for the Kolorex brand, particularly here in New Zealand. This contrasts with Italy, where our enthusiastic distributor has a big sales and marketing force.

NZB: What are some of the interesting myths and facts surrounding horopito and its healing powers?

PETER: It is myth that it is a member of the pepper family, although it's commonly called pepperwood. Kawakawa is New Zealand's pepper plant. An interesting fact is that horopito's active ingredient (polygodial) is probably the most potent antifungal in its class.

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Also, recent research we commissioned at the University of Otago found that Horopito extract is very good at killing the virus that causes cold sores--Herpes Simplex Virus-1. We started looking at this after some customers told us they were using Kolorex creams for herpes. We've now been granted a patent for this discovery and we're looking for partners to help us commercialise it.

NZB: What are your export goals? How big is the opportunity globally?

PETER: We've worked hard to get into the markets we currently supply, which includes South Africa, Italy, US, Singapore, UK, and the Netherlands. We're currently working with a large multinational distributor to take Kolorex into the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. The UAE has experienced a nearly 50 percent growth in sales of antifungals over the past five years, and is forecast to continue on a strong growth trajectory. China represents a huge opportunity too.

We find that the markets where Kolorex does best are where we have well established distributors who invest in research, education and training on Kolorex products. We aim to partner with distributors who believe in the products and are willing to invest in them.

Interestingly, it's not the New Zealand angle that sells our products overseas, it's the fact that they're supported by research, and that we have rigorous quality control procedures accompanied by documentation.

NZB: What's next for Peter Butler and Forest Herbs Research?

PETER: I'm still enjoying the journey and challenges of leading the company immensely, so I'm not looking to stand aside any time soon. We're now in a good position to accelerate growth, so I'm bringing in experienced staff, increasing supply, developing new products and expanding into new markets. It's all systems go!
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Title Annotation:THE INTERVIEW
Publication:NZ Business
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Jul 1, 2016
Words:1077
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