HiLIFE proof-of-concept grants bring life science innovations to market

The Helsinki Institute of Life Science (HiLIFE) is on a mission to transfer life science breakthroughs into marketable solutions. In 2023 we provided proof-of-concept grants to eight promising research projects.

New recipients of HiLIFE proof-of-concept grants are working on solutions for disease care, neurological and personality disorders, materials science, and food production.

We spoke to grant-recipient Dr. Swetha Gopalakrishnan, who is working towards the use of muscle stem cells for cellular agriculture. She explains the potential of the project and shares her thoughts on the journey from laboratory to commercialisation.

What does the world need to know about your research and the challenge it addresses?

I am interested to understand how stem cells make fate decisions. In other words, when a stem cell decides to be itself and when it decides to differentiate.

Our research on the stem cells of skeletal muscles led us to the finding that cellular metabolism plays an important role in the fate-decision process. With the proof-of concept grant, we’re now looking into how this finding can be used in a method to long-term expand muscle stem cells in a way that’s applicable to the cultivated-meat industry.

Some stem cells – such as those in your gut, for example – are constantly dividing and creating new layers. But the stem cells of the muscle are quiescent. This means they typically lie dormant until you injure that muscle. These cells then expand in huge numbers to form muscle fibre to repair the muscle.

While exploring this regeneration of skeletal muscle, we made a number of interesting observations. We essentially saw potential for the cellular capacity of the muscle stem cells to increase in large numbers. Through metabolic engineering, we saw that we could keep them in this expansion phase for longer.

This method could provide solutions to bottlenecks in the cultivated-meat business. There's a lot of investment in this incipient industry, but scaling up cell production is a challenge. We can potentially overcome this by tweaking the metabolism of the muscle stem cells to control how they expand and fuse together.

What laboratory work were you doing that led in this direction?

I work in the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences with Professor Pekka Katajisto. His lab focuses on the function of stem cells in metabolism and aging.

There is a hypothesis that it’s the decline in the function of stem cells that eventually exacerbates the aging process. So, we’re interested to see how the aging of individual tissues leads to aging of the organism.

Our innovative or translational approach – where we bridge the lab to the market – is usually around using stem cells for medical applications. But recent discussions with scientists working in the cultivated-meat industry made me realise the immediate applicability of our innovation in the cellular-agriculture field.

How did you go about taking the step from lab work towards commercialisation?

HiLIFE and Helsinki Innovation Services (HIS) are very active about looking for good ideas. There’s a lot of communication offering support and encouraging us to explore opportunities for the commercialisation of research ideas. We filed a so-called invention disclosure, which HIS really helped us to mould. Without this support I doubt I would have ventured into this direction.

If you want to go into innovation work – either by founding a startup, or even just protecting your intellectual property – it’s quite tricky from a scientific standpoint. As scientists, we’re all about presenting our findings at conferences and openly sharing data. But in the innovation business you need to protect your ideas.

Just how important is the HiLIFE proof-of-concept grant for taking your research forward?

The grant is a huge boon for senior researchers like me, as usually only principal investigators are eligible for this kind of support. But HiLIFE has kindly allowed any researcher with a PhD degree and innovative ideas to come out and apply for a grant. Now I can take this idea and remunerate a team of experts to help me develop the proof of concept.

Even if you have a vague idea of how you would like to commercialise something, you’re encouraged to apply for HiLIFE proof-of-concept support. It’s an excellent way to boost researchers and help us to probe the route to commercialisation, while still being in the comfortable niche of academic life. I truly believe that scientists can also be great entrepreneurs. We are very good at managing projects and teams. A lot of the training we do is very useful in entrepreneurship.

Finally, please explain a bit about your journey to join the University of Helsinki.

I did my post-doc work at the Pasteur Institute in France and moved to Helsinki in 2016. I had already made a shortlist of labs around the world that I would like to work with, one of which was Pekka’s lab. I approached him and now here we are today!

I feel a very special connection to this lab and to the university, as I joined while I was pregnant. I had initially been concerned that this would put me at a disadvantage, but my experience was completely the opposite. They allowed me to take maternity leave for a year and then re-join. This would be very unusual in some places, but not in the Nordics.

What mattered to the university were the project ideas I had and how they matched with the research direction. Now with this proof-of-concept grant I’m able to start realizing the commercial potential of all the work we’ve been doing.

HiLIFE Proof of Concept (HiPOC) grants are for University of Helsinki life science researchers, who want to commercialize their research findings. A single HiPOC Grant can be up to 50 000 euros for a maximum of 12 months.

Read more about the grants here.