This accidental entrepreneur bets on microalgae for net-zero transition
The lab led by Dr Jikku Jose developed energy-efficient equipment prototype to thaw refrigerated reagents, whereas their microalgae-based cosmeceutical and nutraceuticals are in various stages of research
By Gowthami Subramaniam
| Posted on October 25, 2023
From a researcher to an entrepreneur, Dr Jikku Jose has many achievements to her credit. Born and brought up at Kanjirappally in Kottayam district of Kerala, her eco-conscious father fostered her interest in science.
“Though I was not clear about my future goals after class 12, my inclination towards science led me to BSc Biochemistry and MSc Biotechnology at Holy Cross College, Tiruchy,” says Dr Jose.
She later joined the same college for work, but her father encouraged her to study more. “I completed MPhil in Biochemistry from Mother Teresa Women’s University, Kodaikanal, and went on to do my PhD in Biotechnology from the Cochin University of Science and Technology, investing four-and-a-half years into the programme.”
She worked on Jatropha curcas, also known as biodiesel plant, inducing variations in it through in vitro propagation and conducting its molecular analysis. “Surprisingly, my PhD guide Dr Padma Nambisan showed a great inclination towards the environment,” she adds.
Dr Jose after a talk she delivered at MES College, Marampally
The heterozygosity of Jatropha curcas leads to variable yields in agricultural settings, potentially impacting investments. Consequently, it becomes necessary to consider clonal propagation for such plants. The objective of her study was to establish a standardised tissue culture protocol for Jatropha curcas and to introduce controlled variation to enhance the development of improved varieties.
Dr Jose became a scientific adviser at a private company in Mumbai in 2014 to learn how academia-industry gap posed impediments to the scientific community. “The academia-industry gap has far-reaching consequences on knowledge transfer, skill development, research relevance and collaboration. While academia tends to emphasise theoretical knowledge and curiosity-driven research, industry places a premium on practical skills and real-world applications with a market-oriented approach. Academic research often leans towards scholarly publications, occasionally lacking direct industry applicability, whereas businesses are focused on viable commercial solutions,” she explains.
“Effective collaboration and communication can tackle challenges linked to research scalability. Partnerships, joint projects, and internships to align students’ skills with industry needs can be of help,” she adds.
To address the issue, she formed the Society for Educational and Scientific Research, an NGO, and organised an international conference on biosciences in Kerala. The 2014 conference brought together 150 participants, resulting in valuable exchanges and fruitful outcomes.
Birth of Scire Science
Dr.Jose relocated to Dubai in 2015, having accepted a job offer from a private company. In 2016, she was presented with an opportunity to join a plant research project at a UAE university. Regrettably, despite a three-month job less, legal struggle to resolve contract-related matters, she couldn’t take on this role, which was deeply disheartening.
“At the same time, people in India were unaware of the challenges in my life and were urging me to organise the second edition of the conference. I still remember standing on the eighth floor of the apartment where I stayed in Dubai with the 9 am sun shining. Suddenly, the word ‘Scire’, which means ‘to know’ in Latin, flashed through my mind. I immediately contacted a friend in India to register a company called ‘Scire Science’ in my name,” she shares.
On returning to India in 2016, Dr Jose began to focus on Scire Science, conducting conferences and training workshops for scientists. She successfully organised the second chapter of the international conference in Bengaluru the same year. “At the conference, a female researcher presented a solution for biodegradability of diapers through microbes, which was inspired from the discussions held during the last conference,” she beams.
Scire Science naturally found its path beyond the conference as people started seeking its services to publish academic books, journals and newsletters. In 2019, Scire Science began to conduct workshops, training and internships, exclusively for research students.
At the Indian Science Congress, Bangalore
MOU signed betweeen St Terasa’s College, Ernakulam and Scire Science for industry-academia collaboration
Turning into an entrepreneur
Scire Science opened its own lab at BioNest — a biotech incubation centre run jointly by the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology, Thiruvananthapuram, and Kerala Startup Mission — in Kochi in 2018. It successfully developed an energy-efficient equipment prototype to thaw refrigerated reagents in labs, thus saving 70% energy. “We have made it more cost-effective recently,” Dr Jose says, not divulging more as the patent process is on.
When the demand for liquid sanitisers soared in the initial days of COVID-19, BioNest Chief Executive Officer Dr Saji George urged Scire Science to make hand sanitisers to meet the growing market demand. Despite the challenges in obtaining necessary licences while navigating a lockdown, Scire Science launched its Safe Touch Sanitiser in 2020.
On the other hand, the lockdown posed a challenging period for research. Dr Jose and her team were conducting experiments on developing microalgae-based cosmeceuticals and nutraceuticals at that time. She recalls how they found the microalgae dead upon returning to the lab after the lockdown.
Some of these cosmeceuticals and nutraceuticals are now ready for commercialisation, while others are still in different stages of research and development. “In the current landscape of our research endeavours, microalgae have emerged as a focal point of exploration and innovation,” she says.
These diminutive organisms possess a wealth of untapped potential, offering a promising avenue for addressing the pressing global issue of food security. Their intrinsic attributes, including their remarkable capacity for carbon sequestration, nutrient richness and exceptional photosynthetic efficiency, position microalgae as a transformative force in the quest for carbon neutrality and the fulfillment of burgeoning industrial demands in the foreseeable future.
“We encounter a series of formidable challenges that necessitate diligent attention. Among these challenges are the considerable production costs associated with microalgae cultivation, a cautious acceptance within various industries and valid safety concerns regarding their utilisation. Addressing these hurdles will require the concerted and coordinated efforts of professionals across a spectrum of disciplines, all committed to unlocking the full potential of microalgae-based product development,” Dr Jose says.
Dr Jose with interns at Scire Science
At Scire Science’s lab at BioNest, a biotech incubation centre in Kochi
“Our overarching goal is to leverage the versatility of microalgae across an array of applications, particularly in fields such as skincare and nutraceuticals. By doing so, we can circumvent the need to sacrifice conventional plants to extract similar molecules that can be readily sourced from microalgae. This approach underscores our unwavering dedication to sustainable practices that resonate across a diverse range of industries, aligning our efforts with the broader mission of fostering a more environmentally conscious and resilient future,” she explains.
An inspiration to others
“After PhD, everyone tells you to enter the teaching profession. But my friend decided to pursue business in her research area. Without any management background, she effortlessly led her business to growth and diversified it as per the market demands. It was possible only because of her clear vision,” says Hima Joy, a friend. In 2019, Dr Jose became a research member of the Indian Institute of Sustainable Development (IISD), New Delhi. Besides, she is a consultant and advisory board member of different companies. She was invited to a panel at the Indian Science Conference in Bengaluru in 2020.
“She is a versatile personality and one among the few doctorates in biofuel in the country. She is not content in just listing her published articles, and tries to translate theoretical science into business… Unfortunately, very few scientists do that,” says IISD Director General Dr Srikanta K Panigrahi.
Dr Jose is a visiting faculty at St Joseph College of Communications, Kottayam. “The college introduced Environmental Studies and Human Rights as a subject in 2017. Since Dr Jose’s work majorly focuses on sustainability, we invited her to teach here three days a week. She is instilling a sense of social responsibility in our students, which is what we expect through this subject,” says college principal Father Dr Joseph Parackel.
Scire Science was recognised at the national level in 2018, when she received the Outstanding Achievement Award for Business Excellence from All India Achievers Forum.
Moreover, she has authored academic book chapters. She served as the chairperson of scientific sessions and was a speaker for various academic and non-academic programmes. She was a panellist of the Women’s Science Congress during the Indian Science Congress, 2020.
Additionally, she served as a supervisor for a postdoctoral fellow, guiding the researcher on nutraceutical product development from microalgae. Although Dr Jose may consider herself an accidental entrepreneur, she firmly believes that her vision to serve the society and environment has guided her path.
Officials from the Kerala Medical Technology Consortium visit Scire Science
About the author
Gowthami Subramaniam is an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker. Her work highlights stories around women, energy, environment and climate change. Her work can be found on 101Reporters, CarbonCopy, Mongabay, The News Minute and more. She is an Earth Journalism Network grantee, and a Thomson Reuters Foundation and Global Centre on Adaptation fellow for Locally Led Adaptation. She was recognised as ‘Journalist of the Month’ in March 2022 by International Journalists’ Network and also as one of the ‘Emerging Producers of 2021’ by the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers.