Meet the researcher: Dr Parag Acharya on building a ‘one stop shop’ for sustainable proteins

4 April 2022

Be open-minded and collaborative – that’s the advice to researchers hoping to break into sustainable proteins from a scientist who has returned to academia following a prestigious career in industry.

Parag Acharya, Senior Fellow in Food Innovation

Name: Dr Parag Acharya

Job title: Senior Fellow in Food Innovation and Innovation Growth Manager for the Growing Kent And Medway innovation cluster

Organisation: Natural Resources Institute (NRI), University of Greenwich

Sustainable protein specialism:  Plant and algae-based food innovation, product and process technologies, flavour technology

Be open-minded and collaborative – that’s the advice to researchers hoping to break into sustainable proteins from a scientist who has returned to academia following a prestigious career in industry.

Dr Parag Acharya is now leading a research group on food processing and innovation, as well as the development of the Medway Food Innovation Centre (MFIC), which he says will be a ‘one stop shop’ or innovation centre with state-of-the-art facilities and technical expertise, creating opportunities for those hoping to develop sustainable proteins in the UK. 

The ambition is to build a Protein4NetZero research and innovation programme to help the UK accelerate its shift to a more sustainable food system.  

The centre, based at the University of Greenwich’s Medway Campus, will be home to a research community with industrial partners looking into areas such as eco-innovative extraction of plant and algae proteins, and developing sustainable processes to improve the function of plant, algae and fungal protein. 

It will enable better product innovation, deliver the science needed to tackle the taste and texture challenges facing sustainable meat and dairy products, and teach the skills a new generation of food manufacturers will need to work in the  sustainable protein industry.

The million-pound centre will include a food grade facility for early prototyping, a food processing lab with equipment for novel extraction, drying and culinary transformation, a food analytics capability including flavour and sensory analysis, and an accelerator space for sustainable protein startups and other companies. 

Along with the Growing Kent and Medway cluster, he hopes this will create a vibrant food innovation community across the south east of England.

Career in industry 

Parag’s long career across Europe and North America has resulted in four patents, as well as several publications and grant-funded research projects.

After a PhD in bioorganic chemistry from Uppsala University in Sweden and postdoctoral work on protein biochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, Parag started working for biotechnology companies in Canada.

He moved into food when he returned to Europe in 2011 to work for Unilever, staying there for nearly a decade and delivering sustainable product and process technologies for brands such as Knorr and Hellmann’s. He also carried out research through industry-academia partnerships on how raw material processing affects product qualities like flavour and texture.

Problems holding the UK back

But he returned to academia when he received the offer to join the University of Greenwich’s Natural Resources Institute, seeing an opportunity to set up the food innovation centre and work with Growing Kent and Medway to alleviate some of the challenges he believes are holding back the UK’s sustainable protein field. 

Parag said: “There’s research on sustainable protein going on in the UK, but it’s very disjointed and there’s very little collaboration. 

“There’s also minimal government spending in this area – there should be far more. The National Food Strategy said there needs to be a 30% reduction in meat consumption over the next decade and suggested that £1 billion was needed in areas such as sustainable proteins.

“And although food is one of the largest manufacturing sectors, accounting for 20% of total UK manufacturing, the innovation growth in sustainable protein is still lagging behind if you compare it with The Netherlands or the United States. There’s still no proper national protein strategy for the UK. And in order to progress knowledge and innovation, there’s a clear need for open access research.”

Growing Kent and Medway recently organised a workshop jointly with UK Research And Innovation (UKRI) bringing together experts working in this field to understand the drivers and barriers to developing a globally competitive sustainable protein sector.

The UK, he adds, currently has a fast-growing market of around £1 billion for plant-based meat and dairy. 

Collaboration is key

A sustainable protein focus group has been set up within the Growing Kent and Medway cluster, bringing together crop science experts from NIAB and fungal biotechnology experts from the University of Kent who can work with MFIC, providing the different specialisms needed to develop sustainable proteins. Parag is also in touch with CPI and Campden BRI to scope the opportunities for building a transformative sustainable protein ecosystem for the UK.

He admits it is currently challenging for researchers to get involved in sustainable proteins, and wants to see more initiatives such as the Cambridge Alt Protein Society, which brings together students, academics and entrepreneurs. 

He said: “If there was more money being invested, then it would be a level playing field for young researchers bringing new ideas. But at present it isn’t so easy.

“We need to see far more collaboration. One thing that’s very significant about this field is that it has multi-disciplinary challenges – there isn’t one single researcher or even research group or research area that can solve this problem on their own.

“For example, just to deal with improving taste and texture, you need to connect the domains of food microstructure, processing, flavour technology, tribology, sensory and product formulation. And then, you’re going to need scientists who know about plant protein. There are huge opportunities for a wide range of researchers to work together.”

His advice for anyone trying to get involved in the sustainable proteins field is that interdisciplinary collaboration will be critical.

“It will not work if everyone only thinks about their piece of the pie. Cracking any big challenge should require a large team of complementary experts,” he said.

Are you interested in getting involved in the sustainable proteins field? Take a look at our resources.

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