Amrutha Girivasan• Science & Technology Associate • April 16 2024

Empowering Smart Protein Science: Insights from the GFIdeas Scientific Community event

Indian academia has the talent and facilities (for smart protein), but we always look outwards to fully utilize it,”

 

“I would urge Indian students to work on indigenous crops,” 

 

“Being incubated at IIT Bombay is great because every big professor is a knock on the door away,” and 

 

“My reasons for getting into smart protein are emotional, patriotic, and practical.”

 

These were some of the insightful comments made by our esteemed panelists Dr. Vasanth Ragavan (CSIR-NIIST), Dr. Vidyashankar (CSIR-IHBT), Mr. Nihal Singh (Myoworks) and Dr. Rahul Joshi (HiMedia) at the GFIdeas scientific community meetup in Mumbai. The event took place on March 6 2024, and featured a panel discussion, the launch announcement of GFI India’s SPARK Fellowship, a discussion of Ankur Capital’s Climate Deep Tech report by Vishal Katariya, and a very rewarding networking session. 

 

The panel discussion, moderated by SciTech Specialist, Chandana Tekkatte, focused on research whitespaces, the need for more talent, and the proper utilization of funding opportunities in the Indian smart protein sector. Through its continued efforts, GFI India has captured the attention of the government’s Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Ministry of Science & Technology, which formalized an expert committee for smart proteins, consisting of GFI India team members, to spark discussions around smart protein manufacturing and infrastructure building. The Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) also released a ‘Biofoundries for Biomanufacturing’ funding call, wherein selected universities/industries/scientific agencies would receive support from BIRAC in establishing biomanufacturing hubs dedicated to key research areas, one of which was smart protein. 

 

Smart protein funding and its role in enhancing collaborative research

 

 

In terms of research and infrastructure development, targeted funding opportunities from the government have seen an uptick over the past few years with multiple funding calls, such as the BIRAC ‘Biofoundries for Biomanufacturing’ initiative and DST-SHRI call for proposals. It is more crucial than ever before that the scientific, entrepreneurial, and corporate minds come together through public-private partnerships (PPP) and enable sector growth, motivating early and mid-career talent to take up a career in smart proteins. For instance, there is a need for mature principal investigators to spearhead smart protein research in India. Targeted funding calls further encourage these expert scientists to diversify their areas of specialization and submit proposals centered around smart protein. The Department of Biotechnology and the National Science Foundation (DBT-NSF) grant, which mentions ‘smart proteins’ as one of the main research topics, is one such example, facilitating international collaborations between India and the USA, making synergistic R&D possible. 

 

There are also initiatives aimed at bringing in early career talent into the space with smart protein-focused Ph.D. research opportunities, like the IITB-Monash PhD exchange program (run by the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay-Monash Research Academy, an Indian-Australian partnership) or through the SAGE PhD fellow program run by the echo network (an India-Denmark partnership). Such research partnerships spurred by top-tier academic institutes in India not only facilitate fundamental research in the sector but also foster long-standing relations among top universities around the world. 

 

During the panel discussion, the speakers emphasized the importance of enabling industry-academia collaboration, stating that we should refrain from ‘working in silos’ and foster an ecosystem of knowledge-sharing. PPPs play a critical role in promoting cross-collaborative endeavors, particularly for scale-up engineering–one of the biggest bottlenecks in the industrial production of smart protein products. For startups, in particular, limited access to infrastructure can be a hurdle to scaling up their technology. Dr. Rahul Joshi assured startup founders that large companies are willing to join hands for impactful initiatives, citing an example of HiMedia investing millions in their cultivated meat R&D lab and even incubating startups to help them commercialize faster.  

 

Harnessing indigenous resources for sustainable nutrition

 

 

India is an agriculturally rich land with fertile soil that can grow a diverse range of nutritious and medicinal crops that serve different purposes. These indigenous crops hold the potential to address malnutrition as well as foster a circular bioeconomy through the valorization of sidestreams for alternative protein production. Utilizing food waste and byproducts such as bagasse, fruit and vegetable pomace, soy meal, and spent grain that serves as sources of sugar and nitrogen adds value to the supply chain, helping the transition toward more sustainable production and consumption. Until now, the Indian alternative protein sector has been reliant on non-indigenous crops such as soy, chia, and quinoa, which are difficult and expensive to grow on Indian soil. Channeling resources into alternative protein R&D can create pathways to leverage traditional and indigenous protein-rich crops such as millets, pulses, and leafy greens (e.g., moringa, amaranth, duckweed) to fulfill the country’s protein requirements. 

 

According to the Government of India’s Poshan Tracker, a whopping 43 lakh children (7.7%) are undernourished. India continues to perform poorly on a range of nutritional indicators as a consequence of cereal-heavy diets and inadequate consumption of high-protein, nutritious foods. Interestingly, Dr. Vidyashankar’s team is working on a malnutrition program, which is also supplemented by his team’s work on protein extraction from algae, mushrooms, and oilseeds. A few startups in the smart protein sector as well have shown interest in supplying high-protein plant-based food to midday meal programs at schools, demonstrating that addressing malnutrition in India is increasingly a focus area for both academia and industry. To propel the country’s efforts toward food security, it is pertinent that these nutritionally dense crops and their value-add potential are brought to the forefront for more industry players as well as farmers and the common public.

 

Empowering students and young professionals in the smart protein sector

 

 

Every year, India churns out skilled, highly qualified young graduates ready to enter the workforce. Training and upskilling students at the university level to apply their practical and theoretical knowledge to smart protein jobs could bridge the talent gaps in the sector. In the coming months, GFI India plans to conduct more upskilling initiatives, such as webinars and training sessions for graduates and early-career professionals, to help translate their existing skills to jobs in the smart protein sector.

 

Speaking about students’ role in developing the smart protein sector, Dr. Vidyashankar urged them to undertake research projects and internships in academic institutions that are usually well-equipped with cutting-edge smart protein infrastructure. Dr. Vasanth highlighted the importance of concentrating on small challenges in the value chain before aiming to address the more significant problems in scale-up and smart protein R&D. 

 

In addition to academia, industry can also play a vital role in bridging talent gaps. Underscoring the opportunity Myoworks received of being incubated at an academic institution, Mr. Nihal emphasized how IIT Bombay not only provided the facilities and funds for the growth of his startup but also enabled access to niche talent capable of carrying out translational research in a field like cultivated meat. 

 

To enable research among students and early-stage career professionals, GFI India launched the Smart Protein Advanced Research and Knowledge (SPARK) Fellowship, which offers students a fully-funded opportunity to carry out smart protein-centered research projects under the mentorship of expert scientists at premier Indian research institutions. These projects facilitate alternative protein research tailored to the Indian agricultural landscape and ecosystem. Globally, GFI’s Alt Protein Project has been building a global student movement committed to turning higher educational academic institutes into engines for smart protein research and education. The student groups help establish alternative protein curricula at their universities, conduct initiatives for the student communities, and inspire their peers to take up research and jobs in the sector. 

 

Building a community—of the people, for the people (and planet)

 

 

As the sector continues to grow and move forward through category awareness among consumers, increasing targeted funding calls from government agencies, industry-academia collaborations, and the entry of young talented professionals, we observe a snowball effect that reaffirms GFI India’s efforts to position India as a global leader in smart protein research. Building a community to empower smart protein science can drive a positive impact on nutrition, sustainability, and economic growth for the country and beyond.

 

If you’re interested in learning more about our talent and R&D building initiatives and participating in future community events, join the GFIdeas Community and subscribe to our newsletters.

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