Smita Shankar on Commercializing Industrial Biotech [Interview]

 “Commercializing Industrial Biotechnology” is a workshop where top industrial biotech thought leaders will share their experiences and views on current challenges. The goal is to share knowledge that can help us all make advances in our work.

Smita Shankar will be speaking about the company Impossible Foods and its role in providing a holistic and eco-friendly approach to meat production. She will be delivering her speech at the Commercializing Industrial Biotechnology 2019 (CIB 2019) conference in May. I spoke with Smita about her work and the importance of green chemistry in building a sustainable future.

What specifically will you be talking about at the CIB conference? 

I'm planning to share Impossible Foods' story about going from the original idea of using a heme protein in our burger to strain engineering, fermentation, downstream processing and scale up design, leading to commercial scale production, with a small team and a rational strain improvement approach. 

What message would you like the audience to take away from your presentation and the conference?

The key message is the need for an integrated, holistic approach to strain development, fermentation development, analytics, downstream processing and techno-economic modeling, and how the coming together of these elements, under clear quality and regulatory guidelines, is critical to commercial success.

Specifically, I want to convey one message with regard to microbial development. I'd like to emphasize the need to define clear questions when dealing with the large amounts of data we are now capable of generating (thanks to incredible advances in the field) and for people to truly understand the meaning of different technologies, their capabilities and limitations when considering dedicating time, money, and people towards these endeavors.

 How do you envision industrial biotechnology advancing some of the Grand Challenges in engineering and society (sustainability, health, etc.)? 

Over the recent years, we have clearly established the need for microbial-fermentation-derived products. For instance, we have identified several new molecules of interest in industries like food and pharmaceuticals. We now understand the negative sustainability impact of several current manufacturing processes and products, e.g., plastics and some chemicals.

As general consumer awareness of issues such as sustainability is on the rise, the market for microbial alternatives is growing. Initiatives such as EPA's focus on green chemistry further promote the adoption of alternative processes. The key challenge that the field needs to overcome is the associated high manufacturing costs.

In my opinion, the solution is a multi-pronged approach — one, continued focus on technical advances in the field of microbial strain and fermentation development, enabling increased productivity and reduced costs. Over the last decade, the field has seen an explosion of improvements driven in part by automation, sequencing and omics technologies, in part by increased availability of resources such as scale-up/pilot facilities. We need investors and government agencies to continue to fund such projects and products. Two, a concerted effort by policymakers and government agencies to create policies and economic incentives that promote consumer awareness and use of microbial products. Three, collaboration between academic, industrial, and government organizations to train and develop a relevant workforce.

The Commercializing Industrial Biotechnology 2019 (CIB 2019) conference will be held in Los Angeles from May 13-14, 2019. Learn more and register today.

Smita Shankar

Smita currently serves as the director of research at Impossible Foods. Her background is in molecular biology and yeast genetics. She joined IF as a scientist over five years ago. She set up the microbial strain development program and established the yeast Pichia pastoris as a host for producing soybean leghemoglobin protein. She has one issued patent covering the methods they use to genetically modify the yeast to make leghemoglobin. She leads a team of eight scientists and fermentation engineers whose goal is to improve the economics of production of the protein. Over the last four years, her team has built robust processes and successfully scaled protein production from lab to manufacturing, enabling commercialization of their burger and supporting current expansion to over 5,000 restaurants across the country.