10 July 2024

PhD student from Mexico making waves in his mission for safe seafood and a healthier marine environment.


Ensuring that his daughter and future generations have access to kai moana that is safe to eat has been the inspiration of Dr Balam Jiménez’s research at Victoria University of Wellington and now his start-up company, Tonalli Moana. Dr Jiménez has developed a quick cost-effective test that will save lives and reduce waste in the billion-dollar global aquaculture industry. Key to his success has been the support from the university and local science and innovation groups along the way.

One could say there are two types of inventions. There are those that happen through sheer luck or incredible chance such as the microwave, Play-Doh, Velcro, and even X-rays. Other inventions happen through a chain of events or circumstances that bring together unique personal and cultural experiences, knowledge, an environment that supports innovation, and a real drive to make a positive difference in the world.

Dr Balam Jiménez’s solution to a problem affecting millions of people world-wide and costing the global aquaculture industry approximately eight billion dollars each year, is a perfect example of the latter. His interesting life story starts in Jalisco, on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, and a member of the Huichol and Mexica (Aztec) tribes, before moving to New Zealand to undertake a PhD in Population Genetics at Victoria University of Wellington. He has a daughter who, through her mother, is Whakatōhea, a Māori iwi (people or tribe) of the Eastern Bay of Plenty. His time spent with her iwi, along with his experiences back in Mexico, saw Dr Jiménez experiencing first-hand the effects that an unstable seafood supply has on local communities.

“I grew up on Mexico’s west coast and saw that a lot of the seafood that my community relied on, was often not accessible due to waste contaminants and toxins in fish, shrimp, and shellfish. This would often make people very sick before we realised what the cause was.

“I then saw similar problems for my daughter and her mother’s Iwi in the Bay of Plenty. This community relies on kahawai and they also eat pipi as a food source. Once when my daughter was visiting, they were unable to harvest them for several months due to an E. coli outbreak in the area”, said Dr Jiménez.

Dr Jiménez’s daughter's iwi (tribe) is Whakatōhea of the Eastern Bay of Plenty. Dr Jiménez's technology will enable communities that rely on the sea as a food source to know if their shellfish is safe to eat. Photo credit: NZ Story.

It was ultimately Dr Jiménez’s desire for his daughter to have safe and accessible seafood because it is taonga (a treasure) for her people, that inspired him to found Tonalli Moana. Dr Jiménez is now working on a solution to quickly identify harmful toxins in seafood, sand pathogens such as E-Coli or algae blooms, addressing the needs of communities and the aquaculture industry.

Dr Jiménez first came to New Zealand to undertake his PhD at Victoria University of Wellington studying Population Genetics of the Grey Mullet (Kanae). This research was a joint project between the university and NIWA, New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, a Crown Research Institute. NIWA is one of the many government and industry partnerships with Victoria University of Wellington, that serves not only to provide pathways to employment for students but also provide critical links between research and innovation that leads to ground-breaking solutions in the business and commercial research worlds.

This research and the personal circumstances affecting his family, then led Dr Jiménez to the development of a test that uses Aptamers, which are synthetic single stranded oligonucleotides (DNA and RNA or Nucleic Acids) that bind to specific targets. In this case, the targets are small amounts of toxins found in seafood. The prototype he has developed and is testing out in the field enables real-time monitoring at the point of collection. This means that communities relying on seafood to feed themselves can know immediately if the food is safe to eat.

Dr Jiménez preparing his Aptamer based test in the lab which identifies if toxins are present.

In the commercial setting, the seafood industry will be able to conduct the tests and know if the seafood is safe to harvest. Current tests are costly and take a long time, by which time harvests have been collected and if found unsafe, have to be thrown away.

Dr Jiménez was quick to realise that the potential of this tool is exponential and extends beyond the aquaculture industry.

“The technology we are developing could be applied to pretty much any contaminant, toxin or disease in water systems and extend to other food supply chains. This will be incredibly important as the global population grows and with it, our need for more food and efficient and safe food supply and production,” said Dr Jiménez.

It was this potential that caught the eye of the Science for Technological Innovation (SfTI), Callaghan Innovation, and the KiwiNet Emerging Innovator Programme. who all stepped in at various stages and supported Dr Jiménez with funding, mentoring, and connections to create Tonalli Moana. In 2023, Dr Jiménez was also invited to one of the two Sprout Agritech Accelerator cohorts to receive the support of its Accelerator Programme. This programme backed agritech businesses and entrepreneurs, like Dr Jiménez, who are finding solutions for problems affecting food supply, and provided mentorship to develop his product further.

Dr Jiménez in the lab at Callaghan Innovation in Wellington. Callaghan Innovation enhances New Zealand’s innovation environment by partnering with businesses and entrepreneurs and providing them with research, development, and innovation services.

While it seems like going from studying to entrepreneur was plain sailing, Dr Jiménez admits that completing his PhD wasn’t without its challenges and adjusting to the New Zealand way of life, a new culture and language, all while undertaking his research, was hard at times.

“Then my partner and I had a baby and juggling everything almost became too much”.

Dr Jiménez said that he did think about pulling out of his research at several points as he was attending to feeds and nappy changes in the middle of the night but credits the support he received from the university and his mentor, Associate Professor Peter Ritchie, as the reason he made it through the other side.

“Having a child is by far the best thing I’ve ever done, but of course as most parents know, the juggle is real. The saying that it takes a village to help raise a child is so true and my village included my Associate Professor, research fellows and team, and the university’s international department.

“They rallied around me and helped me find a solution that allowed me to be there for my daughter while also completing my thesis. The people I worked with were always directing me, guiding me and showed a genuine care for people”, added Dr Jiménez.

It is Dr Jiménez's daughter, Hinemoana, that is inspiring his work to develop a tool that guarantees her future food security. It is no coincidence that her name is te reo Māori for woman of the sea. In Māori legend Hinemoana is the ocean personified.

He also attributes a lot of the success of his research and work to the strong connections he’d made with local iwi along the way.

“In my experience around the world and as an indigenous Mexican, I’d often see projects completed with little to no consultation or engagement with the indigenous people. Research teams would just take and leave nothing behind. It is really encouraging to see that in New Zealand, consulting and engaging with the tangata whenua (Māori people of this land), is a core part of any project here.

“Right from the start, I’ve been making connections with local Iwi here in New Zealand, asking permission to access their waterways, listening to them, learning from them, trying to collectively solve a real issue in their communities. I shared my thesis with the Waikato Tainui for example, where I undertook a lot of my PhD research. This research was for them too and I hope this can inform their own planning work in the future”.

Dr Jiménez said that like most places in the world, one of the main issues in bringing an invention to life has always been the transition from a good idea that is applicable to a commercial stage. He says that he has found that from studying in New Zealand to creating a business here, the support that is given to the person with the idea, not just the idea itself, is significant.

“The people at Victoria University of Wellington, the scientific community here including SfTI, Callaghan Innovation, Kiwinet and Sprout, have all supported me in such an incredibly humane way.

“The people here recognise that this is where the support is critical as it’s the person that came up with the idea that should get the support first and foremost as they are the ones that have the potential to make change”.

Dr Jiménez and Hinemoana exploring streams hidden in Kelson, Wellington. The test can also be used to check water quality in lakes, rivers and creeks, enabling fresh-water food sources to be tested too.

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