Come August, a brand new batch of participants will kick off their work in transforming their innovative ideas into tangible and impactful solutions in Biosphere, the University of Helsinki’s bio and circular economy incubator. Before then, however, let’s celebrate the achievements of the current participants whose Biosphere experience is coming to its end, and see what the programme has done for them. First up in our series of Biosphere alumni stories is Gugan Eswaran, a PhD researcher in Plant Biology at the University of Helsinki. We meet him in his lab, surrounded by a miscellany of different plant genotypes and seedlings.
Eswaran applied to Biosphere as encouraged by the lead of the first programme Tuomas Pollari. Besides Eswaran’s main topic of interest, regulating plant stem cells for carbon sink, he has for a long time wanted to develop a way that makes isolating the DNA of plants easier and more efficient. As it stands, this necessary step in many plant breeders’ day-to-day work is lengthy, laborious, and requires heavy equipment and unsustainable single-use materials. To top that off, the chemicals used in the process are discarded after use, and if the samples are not refrigerated quickly enough, they will spoil.
As a response to these critical sustainability issues, Eswaran developed the DNA Isolation Card, a chemical-infused card that requires only a scratch to isolate its genomes, that fits into a pocket or inside a notebook, and that lasts in room temperature for as long as years. The DNA Isolation Card is also an answer to many social and regional disparities, since it enables plant research in places and communities where it hasn’t been very feasible so far:
“To use the card, you don’t need electricity or any machine. You can carry it in your pocket anywhere. This allows researchers to do their work in places that don’t necessarily have full infrastructure, such as many regions in the Global South. Instead of buying expensive chemicals, all they need to do their important work is this small card,” Eswaran explains.
“I already have a functioning prototype that I’ve received good feedback on from colleagues working in challenging environments,” Eswaran says excitedly. “Of course, we academics tend to initially be sceptic of anything that differs from standard protocol—but this has been very well received, I think!”
Eswaran knew that he wanted to bring his invention into common use, but discovered that he didn’t know how to do so. “Before starting in Biosphere, the idea of entrepreneurship intimidated me. There was this whole world that I didn’t know anything about. But the people in Biosphere really boosted my confidence in my product,” he says. Realising the potential of his solution was a breakthrough moment for Eswaran: “I discovered that I can build on what I have learned in academia, and acquire these new skills to actually make this product into a standard item in the field.”
Eswaran believes firmly that more academics should learn basic skills in entrepreneurship so that more solutions developed in labs could see the light of day: “Our job is to look for problems, solve them, and then move on to the next hypothesis. On to the next challenge. I believe, however, that the solutions we come up with here can be tremendously impactful in the outside world, where they are desperately needed. If we just keep innovating and inventing things inside academia without giving them to the world, we only lose precious time,” he says. “That’s why I think entrepreneurship programmes such as Biosphere should be a mainstream service in universities. It’s a shame that not many academics realise these programmes’ potential, or even come across them, for that matter. There are so many cool ideas in labs deserving of the recognition that the markets could bring.”
Over the course of the programme, Eswaran has become better at communicating the ideas behind his invention: “I have learned how to share my knowledge and how to receive it from others. We academics never really learn how to implement the ideas behind our innovations through skills like sales and marketing. These social skills involved in entrepreneurship were quite challenging for me at first, but I feel like I’ve gotten so much better at them,” he says. “Moreover, the programme has brought me together with many people who share my goals, values, and the same enthusiastic attitude that I have towards making a change. It has also broadened my network to include such people outside of the programme, too!”
Eswaran’s mentors have had a key role in guiding him through the ins and outs of the entrepreneurial process: “My mentors Aline de Santa Izabel and Aki Luukkainen have really shaped my growth. They’ve shown me how to, for example, make a website, how to conduct market research, and what I need to know in patenting my product. For example, what kinds of things can I reveal to outsiders, and what shouldn’t I? Without my mentors, I would be a kite without a string—aimless, going every which way!” he laughs, and continues: “My mentors have prevented whatever mistakes I would’ve made so far, and what I would’ve been bound to make in the future. I'm truly happy to have these insightful people behind my back.”
Right now, Eswaran hopes to spread the word about his product to a wider audience. Although he has the scientific community’s confidence, he feels he needs to connect with more players in the industrial sector and commercial plant breeders: “I want to talk to as many people as I can over the next six months, and see this become a viable commercial product!” he says happily, slipping as he does an isolation card right into his chest pocket.