Indian entrepreneurs like Myoworks Co-Founder Shubhankar Takle can power the country’s cultivated meat transformation.
By: Good Food Institute India innovation specialist Nicole Rocque and Shardul Dabir
As the global alternative protein sector continues to go from strength to strength, what’s perhaps most exciting to us across GFI’s network of nonprofits is the emergence of ‘tools’ or ‘picks and shovels’ companies for the sustainable food gold rush. In cultivated meat, this means companies providing great technology in cell culture media, scaffolds, cultivator or fermenter design, and even the cells themselves – the components which allow the entire industry to make better foods more cost-effectively, bringing meat grown by farming cells directly instead of by farming and slaughtering animals closer to market.
Shubhankar Takle is the co-founder of Myoworks (formerly Schoolboy Robotics), a homegrown, early-stage startup looking to manufacture and supply scaffolds for the cultivated meat industry globally. Schoolboy Robotics was featured as part of the Innovators Lightning Showcase during the Future of Protein Summit 2019, organised by the Good Food Institute India and partners.
Today, in the first of a spotlight series of Indian smart protein innovator in partnership with Green Queen Media, we’re featuring Shubhankar Takle, co-founder of Myoworks (formerly Schoolboy Robotics), a homegrown, early-stage startup looking to manufacture and supply scaffolds for the cultivated meat industry globally.
In the below interview by GFI India Innovation Specialists Nicole Rocque and Shardul Dabir, Shubhankar shares his journey founding Myoworks, his early entry into the cultivated meat sector, and his plans for building a global startup based in India.
GFII:Welcome Shubhankar – we are so excited to speak with you. Tell us about Myoworks and your work within the alternative protein sector.
ST: While we officially incorporated as Myoworks Pvt Ltd a month ago, this has been a project we have been working on in stealth-mode for a year and a half now. At Myoworks we are developing scaffolding technology (edible and ideally vegan) that can fulfill the main goal of having cells adhere, grow and proliferate onto the scaffold. Our long-term vision is to build a company that is dominant as an ancillary supplier for all cultivated meat companies. While there will be increasing diversification across cultivated meat companies globally the cornerstone technology behind each of these endeavours is going to be the same – an underlying scaffolding technology, serum-free media and bioreactor technology. Given our background at Myoworks, we believe we are best suited to begin developing scaffolds as the first stage of this process.
GFII: What was the initial inspiration that led you to start a company within the alternative protein sector?
ST: My co-founder, Nihal Singh, and I have a background in mechanical engineering and material sciences. We initially founded a 3D-printing startup, selling 3D-printers and know-how on using 3D-printers for rapid prototyping to educational institutions in Nashik [a city in the state of Maharashtra in India]. This led us to thinking about more complex problems that inspired us.
A college roommate from Purdue first spoke to me about making a switch to veganism and the advantages it has for the environment (he works in the automotive sector!). We wanted to start thinking about meat consumption, the way Electric Vehicles are being thought about today. This inspired us and drove us to creating a product that can achieve the same qualities and taste [as meat] without all the ill effects.
GFII:You presented during the Innovators Lightning Showcase at the Future of Protein Summit 2019. What are your highlights from the Summit last year?
ST: The Future of Protein Summit 2019 marked one year of us working on the project that eventually became Myoworks. We had been interested in the alternative protein industry and had been doing a lot of our own research when we heard about the Future of Protein Summit in 2018. We wrote to the GFI India team and attended our first summit in 2018.
I made very resourceful connections during both years with stakeholders from the biotechnology and plant-based meat industry. I was able to meet with early-stage entrepreneurs, like myself, who I am regularly in touch with and often go back to for practical tips on bottom-level lab work. We face similar challenges across the industry, and the summit gave us futuristic insight into what we can expect once cultivated meat becomes ready for commercialization in the coming years. It is conversations like these that only organizations like GFI and the Future of Protein Summit can create for the Indian ecosystem.
There seems to be growing interest in the cultivated meat industry (from researchers and Sci-Fi fans alike) and I hope to see this build into an active community in India through the Smart Protein Summit 2020.
GFII: Much of the developing world is leapfrogging the path of development that we have seen in the developed world. Would you say a similar transformation is on the horizon for food systems in India?
ST: Certainly! Even to this day, in a city like Nashik, there are very few who actually consume frozen [packaged] meat which is the norm in the developed world. Consumers [in the West] go straight to a “big-box” retailer and purchase packaged meat. Whereas in India, the majority of consumers are still visiting the butcher’s shop to purchase meat. It’s going to be an interesting transformation to see India go straight from the butcher to the cell-lab! The decentralised, cellular model makes sense in India, with cell-culture labs spread across the country producing meat locally and made as accessible as the local butchers’ store.
GFII: In the Future of Protein Summit 2019 Innovators Lightning Showcase you said “We have to take over the $7 trillion dollar meat industry”. How do companies like yours help kickstart the ecosystem for cultivated meat in India?
ST: I believe that technological availability leads to more technology, more innovation, and more business. An example of this would be India not having the equivalent of a RadioShack in the USA while I was growing up. RadioShack gave hobbyists and technology enthusiasts access to buy semiconductors and electronics components at fixed prices for at-home electronics projects. A more recent example is a local injection moulding vendor in Nashik.The vendor’s core business is making ready-to-use, turnkey parts for large-scale poultry farms. While a similar transformation is underway for the yogurt industry with companies being able to purchase yogurt cultures directly from producers, this is not yet possible for the cultivated meat industry. Companies like ours cannot be taken for granted as we are beginning to build out that ecosystem. We want to make ready-to-use components that can be bought off the shelves, leaving [cultivated meat] companies to focus on other aspects of their technology.
GFII: What is your competitive advantage since you are really early to the party?
ST: India has a long history of producing innovative and affordable bio-pharmaceutical components for the global biotechnology industry. We see a similar journey for cultivated meat in India.
We have been able to develop a proprietary scaffolding technology at utilitarian prices for the rest of the world. Building our product in India we can provide cost competitiveness to the global cultivated meat industry. We also have the advantage of being able to draw from a highly skilled talent pool, owing to the strong foundation built by the biotechnology industry.
GFII: How can India leverage its existing infrastructure and capabilities in Biotechnology to help accelerate the smart protein sector in India?
ST: There is a lot of research work taking place in the biotechnology industry, but almost exclusively, in the private sector. This goes to show that both the know-how as well as the talent pool exists. However, at this point there are not enough publicly available resources that can be used to carry out commercial research. Organisations like GFI can be hugely impactful in helping create those connections, across talent and resources, to help attract startups into the sector and support their growth. For instance, when it came to setting up our initial wet lab in India, we were able to borrow expertise from people working in microbiology, biotechnology, machine fabrication, that have had similar experiences to ours. This helped us in our search for mentors, incubators, lab-scale instruments and resources.
We are currently being incubated at the Society for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (SINE, IIT-Bombay) and were recommended by them to apply for the Biotechnology Ignition Grant (BIG) Scheme supported by BIRAC [Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council, a not-for-profit set up by the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India], and ten out of ten to them for setting up this entire system. BIRAC has grant-funding available across every technology readiness level and has built up a network of 50 BioNEST bio incubators in Tier1 institutions across the country.
GFII: India is currently host to a thriving startup ecosystem with over 2,500 biotechnology startups. What has been your experience of building a deep-tech focused startup in India?
ST: The advantage of working within the Indian ecosystem comes from an understanding of the cost and value of building an IP-oriented startup. Stakeholders within the ecosystem understand the scientific process and the long time-period associated with building out a product from proof-of-concept until commercialisation.
In saying that, while the IITs and CCMBs [Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, a research partner of GFI India’s] are very well entrenched in the ecosystem, there needs to be a greater focus on building up infrastructure at the medium to entry-level institutions that a majority of the population have access to. I believe deep-tech is highly integrated with higher education and to see greater commercial applications from research at educational institutions, students need to have access to the base-level facilities. This would help deep-tech flourish in India in a big way!
GFII: As a deep-tech startup, the scale-up capital required for companies like yours is often very large. How are you looking to address this?
ST: The way I am thinking about this is linked very closely to our technology readiness. At the stage we are at right now, funding in the form of a grant works very well. As we move beyond proof-of-concept and are able to generate sufficient data to back our technology, we would like to start organically developing a pipeline of customers. At the same time, we would ideally be seeking out strategic investments and partnerships from within the alternative protein industry.
GFII: What can we expect to see from Myoworks in the coming months?
ST: In the coming months we are looking forward to getting into the lab and begin testing! We will be using our scaffolds with well-established cell lines, like mouse-muscle cell lines. As we are able to establish proof-of-concept, we will be actively looking for partnerships with cultivated meat companies and researchers who are interested in testing our scaffolds using cell lines they are currently working with. We look forward to working with strategic partners to develop scaffolds based on their individual requirements.
This article is part of an editorial collaboration between Green Queen Media and The Good Food Institute India with a mission to highlight the key innovators driving the alternative protein revolution in India.
Lead image courtesy of Myoworks.