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FoodGrads Podcast Ep 39: Transforming Canada’s plant and plant-based protein sector through innovation and collaboration with Sai Kranthi Vanga, Ph.D, Project Specialist at Protein Industries Canada

On episode 39 of the FoodGrads Podcast Veronica interviewed Sai Kranthi Vanga Ph.D, Project Specialist for Plant Protein Technology at Protein Industries Canada. PIC is an industry-led, not-for-profit organization with a created to position Canada as a global source of high-quality plant protein and plant-based co-products. The goal of the Supercluster is to challenge Canadian businesses to collaborate with other businesses, and post-secondary and research institutions to create projects that have the potential to transform the food processing sector in Canada, creating jobs and stimulating local economies.

On this episode Sai talked to Veronica about his role at PIC and their mission to invest collaboratively to accelerate innovation and the competitiveness of the Canadian plant protein sector. They are doing some really cool stuff and it was fun to learn about it from Sai. Sai laid the groundwork for anyone interested to learn more about alternative proteins space in Canada. Veronica learned about the skill gap which exists in the industry and what can be done to address it. Finally, Sai gave advice for graduate students and how many PhD’s might not realize the skills they have accumulated are very applicable to the industry they just need to know how to sell themselves on their resumes.

Show Notes

[00:02:08] Can you tell us more about your job at Protein Industries Canada as a Project Specialist in protein technologies?

  • Protein Industries Canada is a non-profit organization with the main goal to ensure that Canada becomes and remains a global source of high quality plant proteins and plant based products. It is all apart of the supercluster program.
  • Their mandate is to ensure that the businesses in Canada benefit from what we are seeing in terms of the change that is happening around the world and the emphasis that is being placed on Canadian foods. What they do is try to fund R&D programs and actually challenge Canadian businesses to collaborate and come together. set up a project. They can work amongst themselves. They can work with universities. We have excellent universities, excellent food science, research, , that is happening across , the country.
  • They are also aligned with other federal institutes like the NRC and Agrifood Canada so they can use resources to create and transform the Canadian food sector which overall helps the Canadian food sector.

[00:04:51] Can you explain more about what proteins you are talking about, where they are coming from and provide a bridge between the two topics?

  • Canada is a huge exporter of agricultural product and they export 90% of the lentils that they drive. Canada exports a lot of the raw materials but because of our population we export a lot of the product only to be manufactured and shipped back to us. PIC wants to keep this products from being exported and instead processed here so that by capturing that value it helps Canadians.  

[00:08:13] Where does your role sit in the protein industries Canada?

  • PIC has different types of projects and they divide them into broadly within industries. Within Canada they divide them into two categories which one is technology projects and the other is capacity building projects. Sai works within technology projects or technology teams where his job has been to manage these consortium projects. His job Is to ensure that these ultimately hit the milestones set out in terms of job growth.

[00:09:31] Veronica and Sai start to talk about new technologies in the food and beverage industry

  • Sai begins to talk about the history of food technology and the changes which have happened since after World War II. There have been trends like the organic trend, frozen foods but the actual process of how we have processed these foods haven’t changed much. For example, milk is something that is available in all countries and to process it is heated. However, there has been a lot of research gone into studying it and the techniques that make it more efficient and take less energy. The reason it hasn’t changed is because it is economical enough and consumers are happy.
  • However with plant’s based foods there has been a fundamental shift in how the majority of the consumers look at food. Sia believes that for the next 10 or 15 years the way we consume food is actively going to change and there will even be a fundamental shift in the definition of food.

[00:12:22] Can you walk us through the steps to how you got to where you are today?

  • Sai is still fairly early in his career but originally did his bachelor’s degree in India and that made him realize that he wants to pursue food processing. However, there are limited opportunities in India for research so he decided to move to Canada and go to McGill for graduate studies. When he was admitted he ended up in biosource engineering which is more focused on the food science department. He had a great supervisor Dr. Raghavan who has been in the field for 30+ years. During this time he worked with plant proteins and found that it was really interesting.
  • During the period of his PhD there was a transition happening with meat alternatives being more accepted like almond milk for example. That is when the conversation started and he started to work on plant-based alternatives and looking at how some processing technologies would impact their chemistry and all of this.
  • After graduation Sai ended up at Daiya Foods, which is a plant-based cheese manufacture which was his first real exposure to the North American or Canadian manufacturing industries. This really pushed him forward and gave Sai the inspiration that this is a field he could contribute to a ecosystem.
  • Now at PIC he knows they have a strong understanding of what each of them does and how to achieve their goals. They need support from industry. They need the government support. They need provincial government support and all of this is there, but at least individually within PIC. Everyone knows what each of them has to do.

[00:17:20] What type of students are looking for to join the alternative plants industry? Where can they fit in if they are interested?

  • There is a lack of skilled labour. There is a gap from universities and colleges where there has not been a focus on plant-based proteins or plant based foods. At most there is only courses but there is no emphasis. Although students might know about it in generally they might not know the specific techniques or technical skills. For example, in class you might learn about proteins and talk slightly about whey protein but nothing extensive.
  • One way that students are able to gain these skills is through co-ops. When working in a plant based company they are able to gain these skills. It will give them a lot of appreciation and understanding of what is going on in a plant-based cheese and a better understanding of the structures involved. Unlike animal based protein which have been studied for many years plant based proteins are lacking. Students will have access to this research knowledge in doing co-ops.

[00:25:12] Veronica and Sai start to talk the collaborative environment of the PIC  

  • PIC is trying to bring together industries in different aspects of the value chain. There are primary producers, they have CPG companies that are doing project development. There are professors doing technical work on studying the matrix. When industries and universities come together it benefits everyone because now people understand what is happening in the food. Everyone can build off of each other.

[00:27:22] When transitioning from university to the work force did you have any difficulties with the transition. Do you have any advice or something that you wish you could have done differently now looking back at it?

  • When Sai was completing is PhD he couldn’t decide if he wanted to stay in academia or go into the industry. Though once he graduated he figured that he should get different types of experience. Though once he was out of his graduate degree he realized that students are failing to actually advertise to potential skills.
  • We talk about critical thinking, communication skills, presentation skills, and, analyzing complex data and making conclusions for that.  All these skills are important for the industry but students aren’t doing a good job communicating this on their resumes. McGill has a good career centre and are good at coaching graduates in terms of how they can present themselves and actually talk about their skills. Students need to be proactive in reaching out and talking about the skills that they have.

[00:30:37] Veronica and Sai talking more about skills that graduate students have

  •  Sai says that yes the industry needs skills like HPLC but those skills are trainable. Communicating and actually analyzing data and presenting in a what is convincing them to do something. Those are difficult skills that you do develop during your PhD. Sai mentioned that the majority of the industries don’t really want a PhD but that is their preference and ultimately who they want to hire. However, PhDs, need to understand that there are a lot more skills that they have developed and they should be focusing on, on those.

[00:33:23] When it comes to jobs that are more in research and develop and project management is there actually a lot of presentation and places you need to sell yourself?

  • It is not presentations in the sense where you do a Powerpoint and show that off. That is an aspect but more so in the sense of your team and maybe funding a project.  You can look at market and research data and understand it while ensuring that your company has a competitive edge.
  • Sai meant presentation skills where you are responsible for gathering data, analyzing data, doing experiments and making logical conclusions from that. By being able to talk concisely and presenting your conclusions to your team if someone if reporting to you than they can act on it and give you a budget.

[00:35:25] Veronica talking to Sai about how she has built up these skills with her program.

  • Sai mentions how this skill is transferable so if you are presenting to your director or VP about research. You are trying to convince them for maybe additional people, the budget, the time or resources that you actually need to execute the project. This is similar to a master’s thesis where you convince a committee that your research is valid enough to do a thesis project on it.

[00:38:35] Veronica and Sai talking about what it is like doing a degree during a pandemic

[00:40:09] Where are the majority of the these plant-based/alternative protein roles? Are they focused in a specific area or are they positioned throughout Canada?

  • In Canada the climate is different throughout the country. There is a lot of agriculture especially with crops like lentils and peas. A lot of roles are in a primary manner capacity with a lot of them being in the prairies. However, these ingredients can be shipped across the country. There are a wide range of industries that are spread across the country.
  • If Canada were to capitalize on this trend of having more plant-based foods there would be a lot more opportunities in the next few years. The hope is that students come in with the skills that allow them to work coast to coast where-ever they want.  

[00:43:06] What advice would you give to students looking to enter into the plant based industry?

  • They need to be prepared to talk and open to new technologies. They need to be able to adapt and learn new skills that that can grow into more technical or specialized tools as they come up. It is also good to have a strong understanding of the basics of food, the chemistry and focus on the basics of whatever it is. Once they do that they can look at the industry and will be able to adopt any changes in the direction the industry takes.

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