In the early 80s, the 12-year-old Vanita Prasad suffering from acute headaches was one of the few fortunate Indians to get a CT scan at AIIMS Delhi, a high-tech technology at that time. Prasad wanted to be a neurosurgeon from the day her brain was scanned. Years later, running out of luck needed to get into a medical school, she settled for biotechnology.
Since then, she has come leaps and bounds in research on environmental biotechnology. Her efforts and ideas can be the key to solving the riddle of waste management in India. Having been recently awarded the government-funded BIG (Biotechnology Ignition Grant) grant of Rs 35 lakh from the BIRAC DBT programme, the 45-year-old has now moved on from being a scientist to an entrepreneur.
With this generous grant came the 18-month-challenge of readying the product – a microbe cocktail recipe, ‘dry granulated sludge’ as she calls it, for mass production and commercialisation. “The BIG initiative is funding product-based research in the country, not basic research. It is there for making a proof-of-concept study, which one can patent and get ready for commercialisation.”
This will be her third patent. The first two process patents (a declaration of invention and ownership of a technological process rather than a product), were the result of her PhD work on waste management in vegetable markets and extracting hydrogen gas from this organic waste. All three technologies are set to be the shining stars in the portfolio of her startup, Revy Environment Solutions.
“Revy’s portfolio will be much bigger but the granulated sludge that I’m working on now will be the first product to come to the market.”
Prasad’s goal is to fulfill the country’s urgent need to put its waste to use, specifically convert it to energy. According to a report for Energy Next, currently, only 154 MW of energy in India is being generated from industrial and urban wastes in a year. The potential, however, is 4GW-6GW, which is enough to power two cities like Delhi.
“I want to make my technologies commercial. I have the proof-of-concept of them already. This is my dream,” she asserted.
Updating India’s bioreactor software
Prasad describes her company’s first marketable product – a dry granulated mixture of 56 carefully chosen microbe – as a “software update” of the existing, yet redundant, anaerobic bioreactors in the country. This ‘software’ is many steps ahead of the currently used ‘flocculant sludge’ or a colloidal mix of bacteria from cow dung and other sources.
“There are lots of waste treatment anaerobic plants that are not working optimally or not working at all,” she added. “Even if you have planned for 75% waste to be degraded by the microbes, only 45 or 50% do. Slowly it became a problem and that’s how these bioreactors started to fail. Naturally, in India, people don’t want to go ahead with this technology called UASB (Upflow anaerobic sludge blanket). If the UASB unit is not working, the whole Effluent Treatment Plant (ETP) gets choked up. Now even environment consultants don’t want to incorporate it.”
Prasad, on the other hand, having studied and audited these waste treatment plants, felt this is the best technology. It works fine abroad, why not in India, she wondered.
She realised that the design of the bioreactors which many farming communities and industries own might be advanced, but they don’t have the advanced microbial culture to treat the waste efficiently. The hardware was fine but the software wasn’t so good.
Indian anaerobic digestion plants have also been suffering from an unmet dependency on foreign companies. “When I worked in Paramount Environment consultancy in Baroda, we got this technology from Biothane, a multinational corporation. Nowadays, bringing the right bacterial cultures across the borders is problematic, due to the threat of biological weapons. Lots of regulations make it difficult for these cultures to be brought in.”
Being an advocate of anaerobic digestion, this state of affairs bothers Prasad. But she has the solution. “Now I am producing this granulated sludge, which will be an indigenous product to be marketed after a year or so.”
The microbe doctor
Anaerobic digestion is hardly high-tech; it is a natural process that takes place spontaneously in landfills or wherever decomposition is happening. The techniques of biotechnology make this process go faster by employing specially designed bioreactors and cultures. As a byproduct of the decomposition, biogas or even hydrogen can be obtained to be used as fuel.
To get the best mixture of bacteria into the bioreactors, Prasad doesn’t perform any genetic engineering or modification of the bacterial DNA, although such ‘super-cultures’ are available in some parts of the world, she informed me. She is simply isolating microbes that can efficiently work on particular waste.
From her PhD research on the metabolism of the waste-decomposing microbes and their applications in industrial ETPs as an environment consultant, Prasad’s viewpoint is one of a doctor’s. “A doctor will look at your blood glucose level, your cholesterol levels and tell you what is wrong. There are some parameters that are the operating values for these reactors. If you provide me with the data from a reactor, just like a doctor I can give you a prescription for your choked bioreactor.”
“Basically when you have a complex biological material, any protein, carbohydrate, etc. in the wastewater, decomposition of these by microbes takes place in a long chain-like process.”
For example, in the dairy industry that Prasad has ample experience in, the ‘waste’ is the effluent left over from the production of milk products. It contains lactic acid, cheese, whey or other compounds made up of fat, carbs and proteins. The industry cannot just dump this waste somewhere – that would be polluting and illegal. For degradation, the effluent has to undergo four chemical reactions. First hydrolysis, then acidification, then acetogenesis and lastly the methanogenesis. All this happens in the same reactor. Different bacteria work at different stages.
“What I am making is a consortium containing all these bacteria: acetogens, hydrolyses, methanogens – bacteria who are last in the food chain.” This mixed culture has to work robustly in a bioreactor and also make economical sense for mass production – this is Prasad’s current workload.
“Right now I have lab-scale UASB reactors. With the BIG fund, I was able to fabricate those reactors in my lab. There are two reactors that can accommodate ten litres of waste each.”
Pointing at pictures on her slideshow she presented at the 2017 National Summit on Innovation and Technology she explained, “These lumpy granules are the microbial cocktail. The reactor, the hardware, is filled in with the granules, the software. When you have these microbes here and the water to be treated passes through it, the compounds are eaten by the microbes.”
“This water will be cleaned and you get a gas from there, which can be used for making electricity. There is a gas that is burning over here,” she said pointing out a small flame. “Whenever you come in my lab you will see this burning gas that can be used as a direct fuel for cooking, heating or electricity.”
“This is a really simple technology, no electricity is required. There is no waste here. Waste is, in fact, the raw material for this reactor. You put waste water here and you get a gas here. All biological molecules get degraded.”
After the patent is filed, Prasad faces the challenge of setting up a pilot plant and inviting investors for mass production. “Right now, I am getting into entrepreneurship for which I am attending a lot of workshops so that I can start speaking the language of investors.”
“Industries need the product in very huge volumes. Right now I have a client asking me to provide two tonnes of culture. This means 2,000-metre cube of culture. I don’t have the manufacturing unit to provide this. This is a huge investment but as an entrepreneur now I can see that a market is there. And demand is very high”
The environment solutions consultant
As she moves forward from lab-scale to commercial scale, Prasad has behind her, over 16 years of experience working as the R&D head and environment auditor with two consultancies.
After her PhD in Delhi, the newly-married Prasad moved to Baroda with her husband. “I knew that Gujarat is in the industrial belt and there is a lot of waste water management to be done so I decided to come along with him. ”
It was easy to get the position of a lecturer at nearby colleges at the outset of her career but Prasad craved for more hands-on research. After a temporary lectureship at MSU (Maharaja Sayajirao University) Baroda, she joined as R&D head of Paramount, an environmental consultancy offering water treatability solutions to big projects in industries and government tenders.
“All over India wherever the site was, the sample from the treatment plant came to our R&D office. We did the analysis and offered cleaner and economical solutions. I was an environmental auditor, approved by the Gujarat Pollution Control Board that gives us the authority to audit any industry.”
For an audit as well as, an environment impact assessment needed before any project, a team of experts including geologists, microbiologists and field specialists is needed. Prasad spent many years leading such teams.
“While at Paramount I met with an accident; unfortunately my tail bone got fractured.” Prasad was left with a debilitating physical condition, unable to sit or stand for more than a few hours. She had to resign. R.V. Kadam, director at Paramount and a father figure to her, realised what a loss this was for the environment consultancies in Gujarat and also for the very driven Prasad. He offered her a part-time consultancy position at the newly formed Day Star Green technologies. “In India at that point of time, flexibility in work was not available. But recognising my aptitude and potential, I was offered this position.”
Even a few hours of work at Day Star Green, filling up as an R&D head at the new company, took a toll on Prasad’s health. She realised it was time to take a break that her ambition did not desire but her body needed. The family moved to Singapore, where Prasad recovered and had all the time to write projects that she had been thinking about for years. She visited Singapore’s premier institutes Nanyang Technological University and National University of Singapore and discussed the feasibility of her projects with the experts there. “My ideas were applauded, which gave me the confidence to pursue what I am doing now.”
On her return to India after her recovery, Prasad rejoined Day Star Green but the time had come for Revy to gain ground.
“By that time I had written and presented some possible projects that had been applauded. I really want to do something on a commercial scale with the patents I held from my PhD. I told Kadam sir that I want to pursue these projects independently and there were some grants I was ready to apply for, offered by the Indian government to develop some markatable products.”
Her mentor, as always, gave her the confidence and the support she needed. “He is always there as my mentor and always helping me. He keeps saying when I am doubtful: “no madam you can do it”. He is 75 years old and he is there every moment; if I want to ask any question he is there to answer them.”
Suicide at 45?
Prasad’s company Revy will provide the same environmental treatability and consultancy she worked on in Paramount and Day Star Green along with the products she is preparing now.
This is a lot of work but there is no stopping Prasad. “People tell me I have decided to commit (social and career) suicide at the age of 45. Maybe they don’t see a mother and a wife starting a research-based company independently at my age.”
The family – her husband and two adolescent sons are by her side. She gets all the encouragement from them.
“I don’t have a daughter, both my kids are boys. They are all males in the family and I’m the only female. I am here because they are supporting me. I’m here because of my kids and my husband,” she said holding back emotions. “Not only are they supporting me from the housework but they are morally supporting me. My kids say: ‘Mumma you had taken a step back to raise us. And now we can take care of ourselves. So you have to start it all again.’ They have given me the motivation I need. When your kids are wise enough to tell you, ‘don’t worry I’ll take care of my own studies and grades, you go on with your dreams’ you feel motivated.”
This piece was originally published by The Life of Science. The Wire is happy to support this project by Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj, who are travelling across India to meet some unsung women scientists.