AIRSWEEE participant Anuja Patnaik talks about her journey as a STEM entrepreneur and her work to empower small and marginal dairy farmers in India.
Anuja Patnaik is the founder and managing director of Adit Bioscience, an Odisha-based biotech start-up that works to preserve, propagate and genetically improve indigenous cattle breeds of India, using assisted reproductive technologies, as well as increase dairy sector profitability. She was part of Project AIRSWEEE 2.0 (All India Roadshow on Women’s Economic Empowerment through Entrepreneurship). AIRSWEEE 2.0 is a Public Affairs New Delhi grant program implemented by the U.S.-based nonprofit organization The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE Inc.) and its India chapters. Patnaik studied chemistry at Oklahoma State University and food science and technology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Excerpts from an interview.
What inspired your interest in biotechnology?
In our nation, we have various challenges and problems. I wanted to solve one of them. I wanted to bring efficiency and sustainable growth to the dairy sector for better food security and for the economic empowerment of small and marginal dairy farmers. I am a science graduate with exposure to multiple disciplines, such as chemistry, biology and food science. Given my diverse background, I chose the biotechnological approach, where I could build up an interdisciplinary team to address and solve some of the pressing issues in strategic breeding and dairy management.
You studied chemistry at Oklahoma State University and food science and technology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. How did the studies in the United States help your journey as a STEM entrepreneur?
The change of my career from chemistry to food science and exposure to various research challenges and problem-solving approaches, have helped me a lot in taking reasonable risks and moving on. I developed an interest in human physiology and how it responds to external factors, such as food, bacteria, virus, etc. I wanted to change my background to life sciences-related disciplines. The education system in the United States was flexible enough to accept that change. Such acceptance itself was a huge morale booster for me. My fellowship at the U.S. FDA (Food and Drug Administration), in particular, was useful in joining the dots. When I realized something significant could be done with my experience, it was thrilling to choose the entrepreneurial path—another big change in life. It has been a learning experience since then.
You are the founding and managing director of the biotech start-up Adit Bioscience. Could you please tell us a bit about your company?
In a nutshell, we focus on affordable assisted reproductive technology suitable for the animal husbandry sector. Our aim is to use biotechnology tools to improve cattle breeding and produce best quality cows for dairy farmers. One such area is bovine semen sexing, where replacing the normal artificial insemination straws with sexed-semen straws can produce only female calves.
How does your work on preservation and genetic improvement of indigenous cattle breeds affect food industry and food consumption in India?
India is the world’s largest milk producer. Also, milk production accounts for nine percent of India’s GDP (gross domestic product). Yet, our per capita milk consumption is half as compared to developed countries. On the other hand, with about 1.1 percent growth rate in population and 10.3 percent growth in per capita net national income, there is an ever-increasing demand for food, which is a challenge for the dairy sector. Only higher productivity can address the demand and supply gap. So, there is an absolute need to improve the genetic capability of milch animals to increase the milk yield.
India is and has been the global powerhouse for biodiversity, including dairy cows (over 16 percent of the world’s cattle population). There are indigenous breeds, which could give about 20 liters of high-quality milk per day, and they also have good disease resistance. But, we could hardly harvest this potential. During the Operation Flood program, our immediate goal was to increase productivity by cross-breeding with Jersey and Holstein cows. The first generation of crossbred animals performed very well. But their productivity did not increase over time. The average milk production of a crossbred is still very low as compared to global standards. The caveat is the majority of dairy farmers are small and marginal in India, who cannot afford the higher cost of climatic control and food and nutritional requirement of crossbred and pure elite breeds. They are also more disease-prone as compared to indigenous breeds. On the other hand, indigenous breeds, such as Gir, Red Sindhi and Brahman, are extremely high performers in other parts of the world. These breeds, however, are on the verge of extinction. Thus, we at Adit Bioscience intend to pick the best indigenous breeds and propagate them through embryo transfer and sexed semen technology. Once we create a sizable population of elite indigenous breeds, the breeding will be stabilized. Efficiency will come with better management practices.
What are some of the biggest challenges in being a woman STEM entrepreneur in India?
When I look at both sides of the coin, I am thankful to the Government of India and private sector companies for their systemic efforts in the last six years to push entrepreneurship and women STEM entrepreneurs. While the startup ecosystem is evolving here, entrepreneurship is still not so acceptable in the majority of educated upper- and middle-class families in India. A secure job is the ultimate goal. In biotechnology, the long gestational period imposes even more challenges in the family front as well as for securing investments or bank loans.
Apart from this, challenges for women entrepreneurs in India are manifold. Women have the major stake of responsibilities in taking care of the children and other family members. In most cases, women lead a protected life and do not own any property. Thus, they have less mobility as well as risk-taking ability. I feel, as women, we must appreciate our contribution to the upbringing of the next generation and speak up for true gender equality and for ourselves.
I am privileged to have a supportive family and spouse, who have always encouraged me in every way to make independent decisions in my life.
Natasa Milas is a freelance writer based in New York City.