30 November 2021

Genetics and alternative meat

How young businessmen promote science in Russia

Ekaterina Aleeva, Forbes

For young entrepreneurs, the strict division into the academic sphere and business is a long—outdated story. They build companies whose income is directly related to the development of science. We talked with the founders of technological and scientific startups about where science is moving and how business helps to popularize it.

Artem Elmuratov, 31, founder of Genotek

In 2010, Artem Elmuratov, a graduate of the Moscow State University Faculty of Mechanics, together with classmates Valery Ilyinsky and Kirill Petrenko and with the support of the Moscow State University business incubator, launched the startup Genotek. In 2013, Genotek attracted the first investment — $500,000. Over seven years, the company's revenue has grown 28 times and in 2020 amounted to 247 million rubles. Genotek currently employs about 65 people. In addition to genetic passports, the company is engaged in medical diagnostics and the provision of B2B services, cooperates with the I. M. Sechenov First Moscow State Medical University and the N. I. Pirogov RNIMU.

— Business moves science forward. For example, in the study of the genetics of coronavirus infection, most of the players are private companies. We are also working in this area and have made quite good progress. Two articles have already been published in the journals Nature and EClinicalMedicine (published by The Lancet), which everyone knows about thanks to the pandemic. By the end of the year, together with Yandex, we want to collect more biomaterial and validate additional hypotheses about which genes are associated with the severity of coronavirus infection. 

I am interested in the direction of personalized nutrition, and I am convinced that it should be so primarily based on the allergic characteristics of a person, his health, goals and ethical beliefs. At the same time, genetics can also play a big role: to determine individual intolerances of a person, the peculiarities of metabolism and the level of vitamins and minerals in the body. I also find it interesting to study how genes affect our eating habits and taste sensations. Someone feels bitter better, some are genetically inclined to snack, and someone is more attracted to sweets.

In my opinion, all this leads to the fact that soon people will receive personal rations. We at the company are trying to move in this direction. If a person has lactose intolerance, he can go to the "What to do" section in his personal account, where lactose-free products are listed and there is a link to a store where you can buy them. While we cannot give specific advice to all the results, although we have a common desire to offer comprehensive solutions.

When a person does a test, updates are constantly appearing in his personal account, which we add for free. For example, before the outbreak of the pandemic, we could not have COVID-19 in the "Disease risks" section, because it simply did not exist. At the moment when there were studies that show which genetic features are associated with the risk of infection and complications, we added this information for free.

Genetics in general constantly needs new high-quality scientific research, only this can move it forward. And for their appearance, it is necessary that there are more available genomes and processed data. Therefore, the first element of success is a cheaper reading of the genome in a special device, which is called genotyping or sequencing. There will be more tests and decoded genomes, too. The second breakthrough is if it becomes possible to process and verify scientific data faster. 

It is difficult for Russia to compete with foreign players in the laboratory part — chemical, biological. To catch up with them, you need to invest billions of dollars and the same amount to overtake them. At the same time, money is a necessary condition, but not enough. If you pour billions, it is not a fact that you will be able to make devices of the same level as the world leaders. The technologies in genetics are quite complex, and they are not easy to replicate. At the same time, local scientific breakthroughs in Russia are quite possible, especially in the field of bioinformatics and data processing. We have a strong mathematical school, good programmers, and in this area, oddly enough, such large financial injections are not needed. A person needs Internet access, a cloud server, and it is already possible to solve problems. 

Technologies related to 3D bioprinting and regenerative medicine seem promising to me myself. When we could take a biomaterial, grow cells and try to recreate a human organ, print it on a printer. There are already such studies, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Everything concerning genetic editing is promising, but there are many not only technical, but also legal and ethical nuances in this area. 

Today, the dilemma between business and science in its purest form has become false. Of course, there were purely commercial companies, but in stories like ours it is difficult to separate one from the other. From the point of view of science, we are definitely no worse than many academic laboratories.

Elena Konstantinova, 22, CEO & Founder of Aerospace-Agro, Agri Tech & SpaceTech market

Elena Konstantinova was born in the small Buryat village of Tarbagatai, 40 km from Ulan-Ude. At the age of 14, she won a regional competition with a study on ecology and in the 11th grade entered the register of gifted children for special achievements in science. At the age of 19, Elena Konstantinova launched the Aerospace-Agro startup, which is engaged in satellite research of soils, their analysis and development of recommendations on agricultural technology. Three years later, the company employs about 35 people, and its turnover is 4 million rubles.

— Ageism has always been there. It is most clearly expressed at scientific conferences, in which, despite my age, I have been taking part for many years. When you come to a scientific and technical competition, you realize that professors and doctors initially do not trust what you do. In their view, only long-term experiments can give something to science. And today you change the algorithm, some part of the code - and you already have a new result.

In Aerospace-Agro, only an agronomist is over 27 years old, because in this field a person with expertise and experience is needed. I recruited a team when I was still at university: I went to conferences and competitions, talked about the project and so found people. First of all, the guys were interested in what I was offering, they wanted to gain experience, and secondly, they were worried about money. This trait is generally characteristic of my peers: a lot of guys go for an idea, for what they want to do. They won't work just for the money. 

Our startup directly depends on scientific developments. We are working on a mathematical model that we created ourselves, taking into account 132 parameters. This year, we made an algorithm for automatic search of hogweed based on satellite images and data from drones. So far, they are still looking for it manually: they are looking at pictures and trying to detect thickets, and we took databases, marked up where the hogweed is located, and trained the algorithm so that it would look for it itself in the future. 

If space companies that deal with satellite Internet succeed, we will be able to receive a huge amount of information directly from satellites. Now we are very limited in terms of its reception and the speed of working with data. If the information flows directly, without saving, it will increase the possibility of obtaining data and at the same time reduce the cost of satellite images. Now one set for learning the algorithm can cost from $300,000. One of our goals for the next 10 years is to develop our own satellite constellation so as not to depend on other people's information. 

Today in Russia, many conditions have been created for schoolchildren and students so that they can engage in science. Therefore, interest in it is increasing. Young people are sincerely inspired by what Elon Musk is doing, they are interested in the environmental agenda, how technologies, blockchain, VR, IT will develop. But we are faced with a serious misunderstanding among the older generation. They don't fully trust these technologies, because at the time when they started using something like this, the quality was much lower. Accordingly, the data they received was much worse. This impression remained with them. 

Young guys come to scientific and technical competitions, they are besieged by teachers and try to prove that it is impossible to do something with the help of codes and algorithms. You show that you could do everything, and in response you hear that it's not true. And all this happens at the moment of life when a person is just looking for himself and is being formed. Also, now in blockchain and cryptocurrencies, many young guys are succeeding, earning money, and the older generation does not take these areas seriously. 

When I come to events where I am invited, for example, to the recent Eurasian Women's Forum in St. Petersburg or the Women Agro Live forum, I still feel uncomfortable because I am very, very young. I constantly feel that I have different views on things, and what for me and my peers is usually perceived in conversation as something abnormal and even immoral.

Most of the founders of companies similar to ours are men over 30 years old, most often with experience in the IT field. That's probably why investors often don't take seriously the girls who run startups. When we enter a room, we first need to prove that it is possible to communicate with us on an equal basis. But these are not our problems, but those who do not perceive us. The same story with ageism. Therefore, in my opinion, it is worth holding special educational lectures for all these people. We need to show the skeptics that we, young scientists and entrepreneurs, are here for a long time. We have successes, we have results, and what we are doing is really working.

Artem Ponomarev, 30 years old, co-founder of Greenwise, head of the Association of Alternative Food Producers

In 2017, lawyers Yulia Marcel and Artem Ponomarev experimented with the recipe of alternative meat in one of the workshops of the Partner-M plant in Maloyaroslavets, which belongs to Artem's father, entrepreneur Vasily Ponomarev. In the fall of 2018 (by this time Artem's friend Georgy Zhelezny had joined the startup), they came to the Food Ingredients exhibition in Frankfurt am Main, where they met one of the leaders of the international organization ProVeg International, which promotes plant nutrition worldwide. The vegetable jerks, which the guys literally took out of the suitcase, pleased him. So Greenwise became the first Russian company to participate in European startup incubators in the field of food products. In 2020, the company's revenue amounted to more than 16 million rubles, it produces about 20 tons of products per month and sells them in VkusVille, Azbuka Vkusa, X5 Retail Group stores and on many online platforms.

— Often innovative technologies are not associated with hardware or software, but with a deep understanding of the market, how to position the product and which audience to work with. Greenwise was one of the first in Russia engaged in the production of alternative meat. Now there are about 35 such companies, and Greenwise, in my opinion, is one of the most successful, despite the fact that quite large players began to come here. 

It would be unfair of me to say that the creation of vegetable alternatives to meat is a special technology that requires special equipment or special skills. The process of production of products based on meat raw materials (sausages, cutlets, minced meat) is technologically no different from the production of vegetable meat. And the most important thing is that vegetable ingredients are also used in meat production, only the bookmark does not reach 100%, as with us. Although sometimes it reaches 50-60% replacement, so it is often not completely clear whether we consume meat or vegetable food. 

Gradually, the economy of the food sector is moving towards the fact that many residents of Russia simply will not be able to afford meat. In the last five or six years, our population is not getting richer, and the cost of raw materials is only growing, respectively, the price of meat is increasing. At the same time, there is a decline in the alternative meat market: we are no longer talking about 1300 - 1500 rubles for 200 g of cutlets, but about 180 rubles for 300 g, as small Russian producers sell. One can imagine what will happen when large players with huge capacities enter this market by the end of 2021.

It's time to stop copying and start thinking. We saw a meat patty and we want to repeat it exactly, right down to the amino acid composition, although we have all the developments and opportunities to do something new and much better. We need to develop products that will allow us to delve into the topic of personalized nutrition. Not to recreate the color, taste and smell of sausage, but to solve some functional problems. We focus on what we want to do one-on-one, but who says it's a good product?

Unfortunately, now Russia is not engaged in the development of alternative food products, as it is done at the University of Texas, at Wageningen University in the Netherlands or in Germany. But ITMO has a project to create a program on alternative proteins, which I may lead. We also negotiated with the Gorbatov Institute of Food Systems about launching short-term refresher courses, because today everyone in the alternative meat market is either self-taught or has attended foreign courses.

Two months ago, the Presidential HRC made recommendations to the Ministry of Health and Rospotrebnadzor to increase the number of alternative products, including alternative meat, in the diets of public institutions. These are the first bells. It will be great if the attitude changes at the state level. In the Association of Manufacturers of Alternative Products of Russia, we are actively engaged in legislation and the creation of GOST standards and product requirements, so that certain rules are introduced, and at first not to regulate everything to such an extent that it is impossible to step to the right or to the left.

My main task is the growth of the market. I really want people to start thinking a little more broadly and perceive the association not as a strange initiative that only raises competitors. We are trying to increase the market in Russia so that in 5-10 years it will not amount to a measly 2.6 billion rubles, as last year, but will reach the level of the global market volume, which, according to Deloitte estimates, is $ 20-25 billion. We have all the possibilities for this: an excellent raw material base, cheap labor and cheap energy. These three elements will allow us not only to develop in the domestic market, but also to play a key role worldwide.

Marcel Gumerov, 27, co-founder of AppScience

Marcel Gumerov, a graduate of the Chemical faculty of Moscow State University, together with classmates Igor Yaremenko and Maxim Pustovalov, in June 2020, at the height of the pandemic, began delivering rare chemical reagents from Europe, the USA and China to Russia in two to three weeks. The startup entered the top 24 projects of the United Investors accelerator (a total of 750 applications were submitted). A little more than a year has passed, and AppScience already has more than 50 regular customers, including the N. F. Gamalei National Research Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology, where the Sputnik vaccine is produced. The startup's monthly revenue exceeds 50 million rubles, and its net profit is 5 million rubles.

— I was good at chemistry at school, I participated in the All-Russian Olympiad, won a prize and chose MSU. Already in my first year, I realized that fundamental education is good and definitely necessary, but I also want practical knowledge. My first job was the Research Institute of Nutrition of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences (now FITZ Nutrition and Biotechnology. — Forbes Life), which studies food products and their impact on humans from the point of view of chemistry and biology. We were doing interesting applied things, for example, one of my tasks was to develop a universal (and fast — within an hour!) a method for determining antibiotics in the blood, milk and meat of animals.

The institute itself was also good. I worked on equipment that cost more than $1 million. But if it broke down, then it could not be repaired for a month or longer, because the operation was not included in the costs. The financial issue concerned not only the laboratory. Despite the fact that I was a second- or third-year student, the salary of 3000 rubles (half of the official rate) was not enough for me. Also, although I really liked the team, our supervisor was about 80 years old. The head of the laboratory is a little less. These were undoubtedly very literate, erudite, professional people, but in order to satisfy the ardor of a 20-year-old student, more energetic mentors were needed.

At the same time, I first encountered the problem of reagent delivery. It took me six months to wait for internal standards (a standard is a set of chemical reagents that are produced in sealed ampoules. — Forbes Life), without which it is impossible to do this research. At that time, of course, I did not yet know what happens differently, but I knew intellectually that it was too much. That's probably why we have never perceived our business only as a business. We perfectly understand the problems of modern Russian scientists and also have a certain social function. I felt it especially acutely when, in April 2021, we delivered the very standard I had been waiting for for six months in three weeks. I really felt proud and realized that our product is important, and most importantly, it is important not to some ephemeral people, but to those who want to do science.

There is an excellent fundamental education in Russia, even without a red diploma you will be quite competitive on the international market. Half of the graduates of the chemical faculty go abroad for a PhD and are in great demand. But from the point of view of career guidance, there are big problems. The Faculty of Chemistry of Moscow State University is focused on scientific activity, and those who fall out of this path have no idea where to apply themselves. Therefore, the guys in the sixth year start learning programming from scratch or go into a completely different field. 

We have always understood our unique competence, because 99% of people in Russia do not remember and do not even know school chemistry. We knew about the problem with reagents, and as we got older, we saw that it simply does not exist in the USA and Europe: you press a button on the computer, and for a maximum of a week (and sometimes the next day) you have all the necessary standards. It seemed to us that this is a worldwide injustice that prevents Russian scientists from working.

We started working during the pandemic and first of all went into pharmaceuticals. We knew that it was in this area that reagents for vaccine development would be urgently needed during the coronavirus. Six months was out of the question. We can say that COVID has pointed us to those areas where we need to hit and strive with our product. 

Now half of the major pharmaceutical companies are already our customers, and by the end of the year we plan to cover the second half. It is interesting that the Gamalea research Center, where the Sputnik vaccine was invented, only recently turned out to be among [our clients]. That is, a Russian group of scientists was able to develop an ideal vaccine with high competitive efficiency on the international market even in conditions of long delivery of reagents and heavy functioning of science. It seems to me that this is a story that our country can be proud of.

Ekaterina Kamyshnikova, 25 years old, Director and co-owner of Quantum Systems

At the age of 16, Ekaterina graduated from school as an external student, entered MGIMO, but at the last moment she went to study at another university for project management in the field of art. When she was in her second year, her father, an engineer and entrepreneur, opened a company to create robots. At Quantum Systems, Ekaterina was first engaged in marketing and PR, and after graduation she headed the company instead of her older brother Ilya. The middle brother Kirill is engaged in Quantum Systems technological solutions. In 2015, the company introduced the world's first universal self-service office MonRo (Money Robot). In 2020, its income amounted to 5.6 million rubles.

— Service robotics is actively developing now — all these robots are bartenders and barista robots. But even when I wasn't working with robots, they didn't surprise me. I didn't understand what was wrong with him giving a toy to a child. There is no practical application in this! Such a cool technology that you can come up with a lot of tasks, and the robot stands and puts ice cream three times slower than a human would do.

Automation of any task requires a thorough analysis of how a person performs it. This is the only way we can develop a technology that will not only provide the necessary indicators, but will also be able to improve them. The introduction of automation requires the interest and involvement of personnel: people must retrain to work with equipment, sometimes improve their skills, switch to new tasks. At this moment, it is important to form the right perception of our technology, because people often do not want to work with robotic complexes. After all, they partially replace a person, and employees are jealous of them. It is important to work out this point so that people are not afraid and do not try to compete with the car, but on the contrary, they see advantages in it for themselves and the company.

The pace of robotization and digitalization is growing exponentially, which means that many professions will soon become unclaimed. Meanwhile, the development of technology has gone much further than the development of society. On the one hand, this is frightening, and on the other, it allows us to gradually rebuild traditional lifestyles, improve skills, and switch to other models of resource consumption. The longer we delay solving these global challenges, the more serious the consequences will be for future generations. And we will face more and more serious crises. Therefore, we need to start now.

New formats of interaction between people and machines, society and technology should develop. First of all, they are related to the general level of education, the development of culture and, in general, the willingness of people to move on to the next stage of development. To be honest, it seems to me that society is not ready for this yet, so it is being pushed through other methods. For example, during the pandemic, being locked up, people used their free time in different ways: someone spent it usefully and learned something new, and someone just watched TV on the couch. The split that has always been, as a result of the pandemic, has become more pronounced: someone will set trends and become the basis of the society of the future, while someone will remain sitting on the couch.

Our company is engaged in automation and robotization of atypical production tasks. Other integrators almost do not undertake them, because they require a huge amount of research and experiments, the allocation of a separate project team. And for us, this is the main activity. We create a new technology for each client. We don't have a very large team yet, but we will grow up soon, because the pandemic has caused a boom in demand for automation. Now, on average, we manage to make about four large projects and several small orders in a year. 

We mainly follow scientific developments in the field of intelligent technologies, robotics, artificial intelligence, automation systems. We observe what appears on the market, what technical and software solutions. But, in addition to the standard topics for techies, our field obliges us to analyze human behavior and social phenomena. Robots go hand in hand with humans, and no one needs them without humans. 

Not all mental activity can be replaced by artificial intelligence, but this will definitely happen with the work that is done with hands. Of course, there will remain areas where it is impossible to replace people: where you need to put your soul. Art, even the preparation of special dishes, a robot will not be able to do this. But the jobs at the factories will end, and the time will come for qualified specialists. People shouldn't have to stand at the machine for hundreds of years and do routine work. I think we were created for higher purposes. And coffee still makes a person tastier.

Maxim Chizhov, 31, co-founder of iFarm, AgriFood Tech

In 2017, the iFarm startup consisted of a small experimental farm near Novosibirsk, which was opened by Maxim Chizhov, Alexander Lyskovsky and Konstantin Ulyanov. They wanted to grow vegetables in such a way that they would be delicious in any climate anywhere in the world. In 2020, the startup attracted $4 million in investments for the development of the Growtune IT platform and agrotechnologies, was recognized as the best agrotechnical startup in Europe, was shortlisted for the World Retail Awards and received four patents for equipment. The total landing area of iFarm facilities is more than 10,000 sq. m., the company's offices operate in Moscow, Novosibirsk, Finland and the Netherlands.

— For more than four years we have been engaged in the technology of vertical farms. They are also called control environment agriculture: all parameters in them are controlled and monitored by sensors and sensors. To run such a farm, you only need electricity and access to sewerage. It looks like a multi-tiered metal structure, where there is a system that mixes solutions and delivers them to the racks. Each rack has a light, irrigation system, sensors. The system also monitors temperature, humidity and the amount of carbon dioxide in the farm itself. 

If the farm is small, then there is less automation in it. Most of the tasks are easier to solve by manual labor. If the farm is large, then a person is needed in two cases: at the moment when it comes time to rearrange the pallets with trays from the room where the landing takes place to the main compartment of the farm. He puts them on the right rack and presses the button to start the process. After 15-20 days, he checks whether the plant has grown to the right size, and carries it for cutting. We have already developed a system in which we plan that next year we will be able to move trays without human help. 

We invest a lot of resources in process optimization and automation. All the founders of the company had experience in IT, so our product is based on Growtune — a production automation system on vertical farms, which includes not only technical automation, but also various business operations, integration with accounting systems, CRM. This is the heart and foundation of the farm itself. It has a knowledge base on growing different types of crops, and we are constantly expanding the line — we have tomatoes, radishes, strawberries, and different types of flowers. Each recipe is entered as an algorithm inside the system and repeated by pressing a button in the application. 

We also use computer vision and image recognition systems to analyze plant diseases, their growth rate and support decision-making by field staff. There are drones on farms that fly along a given trajectory and take the right number of pictures of each tier, give results on the green mass and compare it with reference values. If we see discrepancies, we can predictively make decisions in production. This alone reduces the risk of the human factor and the fact that something will not go according to the script. The same applies to diseases: we have a database that is supplemented with each growth cycle. In the laboratory, we infect plants with certain diseases in order to understand how to track it as early as possible and what affects the treatment process.

One of our tasks as a company in a new market with new technologies is to work on popularization. Naturally, we are asked questions about how our products are better than tomatoes from grandma's garden. But in fact, no one knows how safe vegetables and fruits grown by eye are. If tomatoes grow in the garden, then there is a high probability that the amount of nitrates in them is exceeded. In our technology, we know up to a milligram how many micro- and macroelements are added to the growing process, and we control the smallest changes. Our products taste much better than imported ones, and at the same time there is more confidence in their quality. 

In the future, of course, we will rely on the management system, but it will work only if trained cultivation recipes are embedded in it. We use our farms as laboratories: we collect data from each one, and they allow us to train neural networks. In turn, they give us the opportunity to grow products better and better every time. We want about 1 million square meters to work using our technology by 2026. m farms all over the world. Our goal is that anyone anywhere in the world can get the same products. In fact, this is an analogue of chain restaurants that you can find even in Australia, even in Iceland and know that you will receive products of the same quality.

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