Wellington startup Wilderlab is on a mission to improve New Zealand’s waterways. Its DIY testing kits have transformed water monitoring, enabling users to collect genetic material in just five minutes and with as little as a single cup of water.

The samples are then sent to Wilderlab’s specialized eDNA testing laboratory in Wellington, where technicians sequence and match the DNA to the different fish, insects, bacteria, plants and mammals that they belonged to.

“Wilderlab’s testing kits are easy, fast and reliable. They collect DNA from across the whole tree of life, making high quality biological data accessible to everyone,” says Wilderlab founder and principal scientist, Shaun Wilkinson.

“We do all our production and processing in house – from kit assembly, DNA extraction, metabarcoding analysis, sequencing and bioinformatics. Our clients use the results for a range of conservation, biosecurity and biodiversity monitoring purposes,” he adds.

Currently, Wilderlab’s key clients are local and central government, universities and other research institutes. However, there is a growing clientele of consultants, iwi and hapū, farmers and water care groups. There is also growing interest from the infrastructure sector in the Australia and Pacific region.

In New Zealand, councils are mandated to monitor waterways regularly under the new National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, so the testing kits are well used within this sector. Wilderlab clients also use the testing kits and lab services before undertaking work around waterways. For example, before moving a culvert or building a bridge, clients will test to find out what species are in the water to determine if any remediation work is required.

Wilderlab has developed an ecological health score, the TICI (Taxon Independent Community Index), that condenses the large amount of eDNA information to a robust and easily interpreted measure of ecological health. This enables users to track changes in habitat quality through time as their restoration efforts start to take effect.

“As we grow, we’re starting to see some really positive outcomes” says Wilkinson.

“Clients have discovered new populations of critically endangered fish which are being protected because they were found through our testing. New incursions of nasty lake weeds have been discovered and eradicated because they were caught early. This is the most invigorating part of my job and the reason I started Wilderlab,” he adds proudly.

Prior to Wilkinson developing Wilderlab’s self-contained testing kits, traditional testing techniques required clunky pump systems, were time-consuming, expensive and required specialist training. This limited the scalability of the technology, increased contamination rates, and caused sample degradation during transport back to a lab.

Wilkinson, who has a PhD in Genetics and Statistics from Victoria University, knows this firsthand. He spent three years in Timor-Leste researching coral reef diversity where he had to use these techniques.

“When I was in Timor-Leste, eDNA monitoring was still in its infancy. I could see there was a gap in the market for a commercial testing lab when I returned to New Zealand in 2019”.

Within six short months, Wilderlab was open for business. The growing team of 19 now test 10,000 to 20,000 water samples each year and Wilderlab has expanded its services into Australia and the Pacific region.  

With sustainability a growing focus in the agricultural industry, Wilderlab had a stand in the Sustainability Hub at this year’s National Fieldays and entered the 2023 Fieldays Innovation Awards, winning the Growth and Scale award.

“We were up against some amazing businesses, so I was pretty surprised we won. It’s cool to get that credibility, publicity and amazing prizes,” says Wilkinson.

One of the prizes was a customised business growth programme with Soda that Wilderlab will begin shortly.

“My goal is to make eDNA testing mainstream in New Zealand, because it has so much potential to solve some of our big biodiversity, conservation and biosecurity challenges”.