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"There is a lack of holistic view when it comes to food" - Divya Mohan [Interview]

Product developer and innovator Divya Mohan works with probiotics by day and is in the process of developing cost effective edible straws by night. We interviewed her about her career and what she views as topical themes in the world of food.

Can you give us a brief summary of your career to date?

"I am a biotechnology engineer, extremely passionate about food. I took up an Erasmus Mundus masters in Food Innovation and Product Design, where I studied Food Processing in AgroParis Tech, France, Food Business and Innovation in DIT, Ireland and Food Packaging and Logistics in Lund University, Sweden. Right after my graduation I got offered a position as a Product Developer at Probi AB, where I primarily work on developing and analyzing food matrices for probiotic survival."

"In one of my innovation courses at the University, two of my teammates and I started working on finding and closing a gap in the food packaging industry and landed on the alarmingly large number of plastic drinking straws we use every single day (500 million in the United States alone, 500 MILLION!). The huge impact created by such a small entity intrigued us and became the starting step to the development of the edibles. I now run this project on my own and am in the process of developing drinking straws that are edible and deliver a unique drinking experience to consumers. These straws will be designed to come in different flavors and also target certain nutrients."

"I am a Product Developer working with probiotics by day and an Innovator in the process of developing cost effective edible straws by night."

You are the co-founder of 'the edibles’. What are the difficulties you face in the process of starting a company?

"The edibles is an innovation project towards developing straws that are edible, zero-waste and cost effective (extremely important aspect for a straw). I work on the edibles along with an intern and soon a business developer. Taking this project from an idea to a prototype has been a journey that no job could teach me. I learn something new in terms of regulation, ingredient properties, market trends and the learning never ends. Just when I have an 'eureka' moment, I get to know of another piece of information that changes my entire track. Of course I also am not European, therefore starting a company is a tad bit more complicated than usual in terms of the legalities and paper work. For now I am focusing on going from prototype to product."

"I think one of the most important aspect is finding the right people to build the team, I am in the process of doing just that."

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How do you deal with overcoming the challenges when it comes to the work area?

"At Probi, which is where I work, I am surrounded with an extremely supportive network of people. Every challenge is solved as a team. The culture in the company is positive and encouraging making overcoming challenges less daunting. When I work on my innovation project, the challenges are solved in a priority basis, as there are too many! I think I have learnt that there are always a thousand reasons for things not to work out. You have to hold on to that one reason that makes it work and move forward."

"With a project like the edibles, the purpose is much bigger than me, so the drive to find a solution is strong. I am incubated at Venture Labs in Lund and the people there provide an extremely helpful environment in the best of their capacity. So I think overcoming challenges for me had a lot to do with finding the right people who could guide me towards the solution. I also read about this technique where you have to force yourself to read a piece of information from topics that you have absolutely no interest towards like taxes (maybe just me). This helps you widen the scope of inspiration you have when you are trying to deal with new challenges."

"Specifically since I am working with a product that I need to target to consumers, I realized that I have to be flexible and mold through out the process so that I avoid facing the same challenges repeatedly. So bottom line would be surround yourself with the right people and develop the right attitude."

"P.S. Spend a lot of time understanding the challenge."

Your focus is on sustainability in food and the need for innovation in the development of food ingredients. Why did you choose to focus on these two topics?

"Every study conducted to date states that we currently produce enough food to feed the population on the planet, so why is there still a threat to food security?"

"Fact 1 – 3.1 million children die of undernourishment every year. (www.worldhunger.org)."

"Fact 2 – 1.3 billion tonnes of food gets lost or wasted every year. (www.fao.org)."

"How are we so oblivious to what is happening? In my opinion, it is the lack of sustainability across different levels in the food supply chain. Starting at the farm: with excessive use of chemical fertilizers, lack of know-how and development/implementation of technology in harvesting processes; through transport and storage: under utilization of suitable packaging to reduce post harvest losses, unskilled labor involved with handling, unfair distribution of food; till the consumer: stringent expiry dates on processed food that lead to consumers discarding perfectly eatable food, preference of aesthetics over nourishment just to point out a few."

"We do not need to produce more food; we need innovation to improve how we treat our food. Sustainability at every stage is the only way to ensure food security. Innovation in the food system is the only way to ensure sustainability. Hence my focus on the two."

What solution do you think should be implemented to address food sustainability problems?

"Majority of us in the field of food are busy trying to solve a problem we know exists but do not completely understand. The first step towards solving this is analyzing it from the root (farm) up (consumer). There is a lack of holistic view when it comes to food. It is such a broad area that when we start thinking about it, the complexity can become intimidating. Sustainability in apple farming needs a completely different solution than sustainability in milk production. The rudimentary solution would be analyzing every stage of a particular food supply chain and designing a study to understand the impact of the current logistics in that chain. This knowledge needs to be broken down and simplified for everyone to comprehend and then think of innovative solutions."

"I strongly believe that the concept of sustainability and food security should be ingrained in every child right from school, priming our younger generation to be aware consumers. I am sure if one really understood the amount of effort that went into growing a strawberry, it will not be thrown away because it looks 'funny'."

"As a start simple steps go a long way, make children at home grow a herb. Let them understand the dynamics of what they consume. Small effective changes has the potential to become a big revolution."

What is you priority for the second half of 2018?

"Apart from my work and my innovation project, I want to focus on decoding food sustainability piece by piece to get closer to the root of the problem. It is not unsolvable; we all need to work on this together as a team!"

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