From research to real-world utility: a UCT spin-off’s journey

04 April 2023 | Story Supplied. Photo Supplied. Read time 6 min.
MariHealth founders, Prof Vernon Coyne and Dr Sarah Carroll
MariHealth founders, Prof Vernon Coyne and Dr Sarah Carroll

MariHealth Solutions, a marine biotech and spin-off company from the University of Cape Town (UCT), has its sights set on shifting animal health management in the global aquaculture industry. Stirrings of company formation first began in late 2020, when Professor Vernon Coyne and Dr Sarah Carroll of the Molecular and Cell Biology department were working on scaling a probiotic for farmed abalone larvae.

The research conducted by Professor Coyne’s lab over the years pointed to the obvious need for proactive health management in aquaculture, which was steered towards commercialisation with the help of the department’s Francois Oosthuizen and Dr Wasiu Afolabi.

The Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) was pivotal in funding some of the company’s earlier work through their seed funding, which looked at on-farm application of the abalone probiotic for settlement larvae in commercial hatcheries. This enabled the refinement of the probiotic, which is now being scaled for incorporation in abalone feed for testing in weaning-stage post-larval abalone.

Currently, MariHealth Solutions is utilising proteomics as a molecular screening tool to assess the impact of farming operations and nutrition on fish and shellfish.


“In addition to feed probiotic products and the health monitoring services, we see a pipeline of future products coming from ongoing research both within the company and at UCT.”

After initial engagements with the University Technology Fund (UTF), a venture fund focused on
early-stage investment to commercialise research outputs of South African universities, and since the commercial potential of the technologies was evident, the researchers decided to embark on the process of founding a company. Wayne Stocks, the fund manager of the UTF, said: “The opportunity is exciting as although it has local South African impact, particularly in the valuable abalone farming industry, it has scalability and the ability to service foreign markets too. This is also not a one-trick pony – in addition to feed probiotic products and the health monitoring services, we see a pipeline of future products coming from ongoing research both within the company and at UCT.”

Entrepreneurial development

In 2021, Dr Carroll began her entrepreneurial journey by participating in the UCT Graduate School of Business E-track programme , which provided her with a solid foundation and knowledge to develop the company’s business plan. E-track included marketing basics, refining the value proposition, effective positioning for investment, as well as legal and financial tools.

MariHealth Solutions was formally incorporated in October 2021 and raised a UTF seed investment of R1.5 million. This developed their minimum viable product by (non-lethally) analysing blood from 2 000 abalone.

Casting the net(work)

Carroll said: “During 2022, we engaged key stakeholders in the global aquaculture industry to truly understand our market and our customers, shaping our business model and offering.”

Connection with Dr Brandon Spolander, the owner of AquaVet Africa, highlighted the potential benefit their joint efforts could have on the wider industry – and so, a partnership began. With Dr Spolander, MariHealth Solutions is embarking on work with several fish farms in the United Kingdom to help tackle some of the issues farmers are experiencing.

Next-round investment

Mid-2022 saw MariHealth Solutions gearing up to fundraise R7 million. Investment due diligence by the UTF and UCT for Series Seed investment began in September 2022.  At this level, UCT is required to invest alongside the UTF and does so through their Evergreen Fund, which is geared to support UCT spin-offs. With the signing of contracts in March 2023, the investment offers the company a
12-month runway to expand their team, continue technology development, and extend to other species such as salmon, as well as service international markets.

Showcasing the new kid on the block

Coyne and Carroll have just returned from successfully debuting MariHealth Solutions at the International Abalone Symposium in Auckland, New Zealand. Carroll is also heading to an entrepreneur-in-residence programm in Norway to develop relationships with key stakeholders in the Norwegian salmon farming industry, which is the largest in the world, as well as identify routes to market in Norway.

During her time in the northern hemisphere, Carroll will be presenting MariHealth Solutions at the Blue Food Innovation Summit in London, offering her the opportunity to connect with other start-ups, as well as investors in the Blue Economy.

Personal growth

Over the last year and a half, Coyne and Carroll have honed their entrepreneurial skills and realised that their true strengths lie in being effective co-founders and running a biotech startup. Coyne said “Years of industry knowledge and academic experience can really provide a company with the competitive edge it needs to push boundaries and innovate in the aquaculture healthcare sector.”

Carroll has found a passion in female entrepreneurship, challenging herself with growing a business in a heavily male-dominated industry. Together, they believe in the value of commercialising research at the university, especially if it has real-world applicability and utility, as well as driving the change they wish to see.

“It goes without saying that our journey would not have been possible without the efforts and support of the RC&I team in aiding the formation, structure and early-stage growth of the company. UCT, TIA and the UTF have been invaluable in transferring this technology from research to real-world use, for the greater benefit of the global aquaculture industry,” they said.

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