Experimental Technologies, inspite of having immense potential, are often restricted to lab based research due to lack of mainstream approaches to explore and adopt the technology.

Akanksha Agarwal (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Founding Director of Agromorph Technosolutions Private Limited, focuses on rejuvenation of industrial waste streams through sustainable biological processes based on algae as a hero organism.

Akanksha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about continuing her exploration of Algae from the “state-of-the-art” lab facility at ICT (Mumbai) as PhD researcher, to the industry as founder of an algal technology development and licensing firm with a collaborative approach to environmental sustainability.

For students, a career in research prepares you to ask the right questions, and explore the answers through your entrepreneurial journey by taking your learnings to the real world for commercial viability.

Akanksha, tell us about Your background? 

I’m Akanksha Agarwal, a sustainable research enthusiast. I grew up in many places as my father is an ex-Navy man. I was born in Delhi, spent some of my early years in Visakhapatnam, but was mostly brought up in Bombay. As with most Naval kids, my schooling was also from different schools but I finished my schooling at Kendriya Vidyalaya No. 1, Colaba. The story behind this was that I was and still am an enthusiastic badminton player and when the sports coach at the school saw me play near the teacher’s building, he made sure that my mum, a teacher at the same school, enrolled me here so I could be part of the team representing Mumbai region in the nationals. Thus, I got a chance to pursue my game at the National level and bagged a few medals during my 10th, 11th and 12th standards! (I was allowed to play during my board years ONLY because I maintained my grades 😊)

My flair for sustainability was first recognized and given an impetus during a science exhibition in school wherein my entry for a solar powered city was noticed by a physicist at TIFR. He personally called me to meet me and my mum. He simply asked me to try to understand a shuttlecock’s trajectory and record it. Many failed attempts with a racquet in the school’s lab kindled my fascination for science in everyday life.  

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

Instinctively, I enrolled myself for a BSc. in Life Sciences at St. Xavier’s college where I had an opportunity to interact and participate in many climate related projects. I recall being part of a group of 5 (we called ourselves GangGreen) that actually mapped the electrical panels in the entire college (the switchboards contained at least 30 switches each and every student would try each switch to put on a single fan. So, we made a map for the board and stuck it near the switch board.) After an enriching experience at Xavier’s, I went on to pursue a MSc in Biotechnology at VIT Vellore where I had heard that the degree had a research-based component in every semester, which meant that every science student could choose a research problem, experiment and record it. After 3 mini projects and 1 major semester project focused on phytoremediation, I realized that I was keen on developing sustainable products from non-food materials. I was fascinated by Algae because of the various articles I was reading on Spirulina. I recall riding a two-wheeler almost 3 hours away from the campus to go to see a spirulina farm and collect some starter culture. From my understanding of the process, I made a small cultivation set up in buckets (that eventually failed). This endeavor didn’t last due to the lack of resources for algae-based studies during my Masters.

I pursued my Phd. in Biotechnology from India’s first bioenergy center, DBT-ICT Centre for Energy Biosciences (Mumbai).   

What were some of the key influences that drove you to choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

When it was time to select PCM or PCMB in school, my choice was undeterred as I always found biology intriguing. Back then, my parents supported my decision and also thought I’d become a doctor someday (which I eventually did, but not an MBBS Dr). 

The exceptional professors at St. Xaviers were another inspiration that influenced my career choice. I did multiple honours programs to gain access to practical experiments in the lab during my Bachelor’s degree. My summer internships during this time, at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR, Mumbai) definitely got me interested in research-based understanding of concepts related to nature. Through a very supportive guide during my masters, I had the freedom to formulate a research question and then frame my experiments to find answers. 

For my masters project, I chose to devise a process for the removal of heavy metals using plants. Vellore is situated very close to a chain of tannery industries and a major pollutant in this area is copper. Thus, my research objective was bioremediating and phytomining these copper ions. During my literature studies, I realized that phyco-remediation (using algae) was a possibility. Since I had no experience working with algae, much before my project began, I drove to a Spirulina farm in a neighboring city and tried replication of the process at the university. Due to my inexperience with algae and the lack of photobioreactors for their cultivation, my trial failed and I had to research other possibilities to reach my goal of remediating copper. My next trial was with a fast-growing grass known to bioaccumulate many heavy metals. The growth cycle for plants is much slower when compared to algae and therefore my plan was to multitask to meet all project deadlines. With more than 100 plants being handled for 5 months with simultaneous processing and copper ion estimation, I was able to produce substantial results that resulted in further molecular probing into my results by my juniors.    

The entire process of believing in a concept until proven wrong and getting positive results was an exhilarating experience for me. I got the same support from my PhD guide during my PhD wherein my research questions and hypotheses were more refined and I had the opportunity to experiment with organisms at the molecular scale. This led me to the fascinating field of algal biotechnology.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

For pursuing a PhD in a good institute with stipend in India, it is essential to get a CSIR or UGC JRF rank. Since I knew my plan was to pursue a PhD in India, I started preparing for this exam in my third semester of Masters. I recall spending a few hours after dinner in the college library for my last two semesters and just reading concepts from biology books I had begun to adore thanks to professors at Xavier’s (we were encouraged to go back to the library after lectures to understand concepts better). Through some hard work and luck, I cleared the exam with AIR 58 assuring me a fully funded PhD for 5 years. With this qualification in hand, a lot of opportunities opened up and after my Masters, I approached the DBT-ICT Centre for Energy Biosciences at ICT Mumbai for a PhD as they had a state-of-the-art facility for algae. Their ideology of waste to wealth seemed like a perfect fit for me and thus started my formal research in the field of algae. My understanding of the applications and nuances of cultivating algae were nurtured here. As an outsider, all I knew was that algae were the 3rd generation fuel prospects. But there is so much more to this concept and I understood the relevance of proteins, vitamins, lipids found in different algal species and their possible applications. Algal cell composition is so lucrative, that if researched optimally, many valuable products can be extracted from a single cell source. The best part of the entire process is that algae photosynthesize for growth. This meant that while our objective was to make industry relevant products, algae were simultaneously sequestering carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen! Research related to sustainable growth, and waste utilization motivated me to explore ahead and utilize my learnings for a genuine shift towards a sustainable society using algae. My research involved exploration of innovative designs for sustainable algal cultivation. A strong focus of my research has been the remediation of organic wastes from various industries using microalgal species to convert them into valuable bioproducts

Despite how immense the potential of algal biotechnology was, I realized that not many mainstream jobs existed within big organizations. Even if algal research was being pursued, a collaboration-shy approach was not allowing fantastic concepts to flourish and reach the market. I strongly felt that commercial viability is possible only if some organization pursued it full time with an open mind of exploring and sharing. 

I incorporated my start-up Agromorph towards the end of my PhD to bring out the possibilities to the table of the changemakers. With the confidence and support of a talented team, I began approaching industries with the desire to make their processes sustainable. The awareness of algae-related technologies and their potential is now growing immensely with many groups dedicated towards this wonder substrate.

Thus, without a second thought, Agromorph was incorporated to be an algal technology development and licensing firm with a collaborative approach at its core. We are currently trying our best to take processes and potential technologies to a global platform for everyone to experiment and adopt. 

Recognition for my concept as the top 15 women in Entrepreneurial research was a great impetus to my endeavors with Agromorph. As part of this, a basic monetary award was also allotted which I utilized towards a basic set up for in-house research and piloting our concepts and processes.  

Networking is everything. This is something I believe in more with each passing day. Just through discussion of my idea with like-minded individuals, it has been possible to collaborate for Agromorph’s first couple of projects. This definitely helped getting project execution experience and will go a long way in understanding client needs and expectations for Agromorph’s young team. Even today, we believe in speaking and sharing ideas with whoever approaches us. 

How did you get your first break? 

Being the founding director at Agromorph is my first job. With no corporate experience, I am learning at the job and growing with each passing day. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: I had limited knowledge in the corporate setting when I started the company, which made me realize how much there was to learn. Learning on the job has been exciting and a steep learning curve for me

Challenge 2: I also lacked experience with machinery and basic engineering as I am a biotechnologist. I overcame this by getting the best engineers on the team and trusting them fully at their jobs.  

Challenge 3: We had a limited network as Agromorph is still very young (and so are we!). We overcame this by bringing on international team members who expanded our reach and helped materialize meetings and idea sharing sessions with large companies. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I am working full time as the Founding Director of Agromorph Technosolutions Private Limited. We are in a phase of speaking to potential clients and investors about our company and its potential. Our focus is on waste-stream management for value addition and sustainable industrial processes. This requires an understanding of the industrial process and possible effluent streams in some cases. I work on rejuvenation of these waste streams using biological processes using algae as a hero organism. Engineers on the team then help us discuss the execution feasibility for the client. A typical day involves staying on calls for almost 4-6 hours in a day. The rest of the time is spent strategizing the way ahead and taking necessary actions for the same. The sense of striding towards a vision that will ultimately help reduce carbon emissions and make our future greener keeps me motivated and excited about Agromorph. 

How does your work benefit society? 

At Agromorph, we work on developing carbon negative solutions for various industrial processes. We also provide more sustainable products to replace conventional choices which eventually reduce greenhouse gas emissions and have a positive impact on livability. Along with our focus on environmental sustainability, we make sure our solutions are easy on the pockets of our clients and for this, we take a low-risk approach that benefits the clients and helps build trust. We believe in being honest in our work towards the environment and going ahead, we look forward to providing support services to our clients to help them reach their sustainability goals. Algal technologies are still entering the main market and it is of prime importance to recognize their potential and utilize it. I would definitely recommend students interested in environmental sustainability to probe this area of research.    

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Every meeting and every expert we speak to in the industry is a huge learning experience for me. Each interaction has been memorable and is valued deeply.  

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Following your heart while making a career choice isn’t easy. It’s not rewarding to start with if you choose to be an entrepreneur. You will see your friends settle down and have steady incomes and it will bother you. Follow your heart only if despite all of this, you are ready to take on the job at hand. I have had a solid support system throughout my unconventional career. Even now, this support system has truly helped me pursue my efforts to grow Agromorph. Its common to have days when you feel all your efforts are in vain. But what’s important is that in spite of this feeling, you keep moving. Maybe slow, but keep moving. Making mistakes and learning is the best way to grow and guide. 

Future Plans?

We plan to collaborate with the right industrial and research partners to take our processes to the market and make it available to the world for adoption.