Defense for the sake of defense
Maria Berdnikova, development director of the GreenGene startup
The Open Innovations forum saw Indicator.Ru and the Coordination Council for Youth Affairs in Science and Education under the Presidential Council of the Russian Federation for Science and Education hold a contest involving their joint project called I’m in Science.
Its participants shared in social networks about their developments and how they are going to improve people’s lives in the future. We spoke with the author of one of the most interesting posts – Maria Berdnikova, director for development of the bio-tech startup GreenGene – about how a botanist is doing in the innovative business, how the involvement in the startup is going to help with the upcoming graduation and how to maintain soccer pitches in healthy condition.
#Startupdiplom is a project designed as a form of entrepreneurial apprenticeship of TechnoSpark that was carried out in collaboration with the Tomsk State University. Students were selected through a series of business games Build a Company / Sell the Company.
Maria is a student of the Botanical Department of the Biology Faculty in the Tomsk State University and one of the participants of the #startupdiplom project of the TechnoSpark Group of Companies in Troitsk. At GreenGene she isn’t only representing the company at forums and expositions, but she also immerses in the startup life so by the time she is about to graduate from the university, she has all knowledge in biology and technology-based entrepreneurship.
– Maria, tell us about the #startupdiplom project. How did the selective process go, what is your role in the company?
– In the spring, the university announced about the selection for the entrepreneurial apprenticeship in tech startups, there were two rounds of business games and an interview. I showed my skills during the game and was invited to the apprenticeship at TechnoSpark, particularly, the GreenGene startup. I moved here for nine months.
Basically, we are taught how to manage a company through hand-on experience in a real startup. One has to go through tons of new information about the company, peculiarities of its product, and immerse in the new environment. And this work will serve as the foundation for the graduation research. There are seven of us (four from my university and three from Tyumen), and each has been appointed to a startup that best fits their specialized activity. GreenGene is both related to botany and genetics that are of great interest to me, and at the same time it is a prospective technology-based business.
– Did you pick to get a degree in Biology because you were planning to do science?
– Yes, ever since I was a child I’ve been interested in science, and when I was 13, I saw a pop-sci TV show about genetics and fell head over heels for it. I started reading literature on genetics, looking for information. It was a whole new fantastic world for me that I wanted to touch upon. However, at the beginning when I was finishing school, I doubted that I could get to a Faculty of Sciences, so I spent a year and a half studying for a psychologist, got disappointed, dropped out and reentered, but that time, the Biology Department. Once there, I realized it was so much closer to what I’m made of. I picked Botany because I got really fascinated about it during the summer internship. But I have always loved plants, since my very childhood, when I walked in the countryside and recognized every blade of grass… When I happened to be doing the fieldwork, I understood that I liked that and I was ready to dedicated by life to it.
– What attracted you in the project of technological entrepreneurship?
– By the time I had found out about #startupdiplom, science was starting to disappoint me a little. I didn’t like the conventional approach that researches are done for the sake of researches, publications for the sake of publications, with no necessary use in them. Initially I had idealistic assumptions about science, not as a means of profit but as of something that can make people’s lives better, figure out how the world works, find the truths. Researches turned me off for some reason, whereas I wanted to make a real difference and do something important. I took up the project as an intellectual challenge: I was more focused on the game itself than the results. I didn’t even notice how I got among the winners.
– In your contest video about GreenGene, you said that the company tests sports fields for pathogens. How does it happen and why should it be done?
– We carry out microbiological profiling, detect pathogenic bacteria and fungi in various kinds of turf, both in sports pitches and parks. Development of phytopathogens often becomes the cause of turf replacement, for example, on soccer pitches. Each replacement like that costs 10 to 15 million rubles. Park lawns lose their functions and appearance, and it isn’t good either.
Our service allows for early detection and prevention of disease. We can check on the plants, seeds, soil, and water for irrigation. Samples are taken from several spots, first of all, those that are under heaviest loads and thus susceptible to phytopathogens. Since we use the new generation sequencing techniques (NGS), it only takes about 10-20 grams of the sample to define its genetic profile across all pathogens and their count. The results are sufficient to recommend treatment.
– How popular are your services? Are there any competitor in the niche?
– We do have clients, but since we sign a non-disclosure agreement with everyone, I can’t give any more details. We should take into account that working with turf has to be continuous, because it can be affected by pathogens at any moment: they are brought in by people or machines during the treatment. That’s why we end up carrying out the entire regular monitoring rather than just a single test.
In total, the startup has been around for a bit over than a year, the pilot project was performed at one of the stadiums involved in the World Cup matches last year. Such turf maintenance services had been in demand before we came about as well, but generally they used traditional diagnostic methods: immediate microscopic examination and seeding. The methods are still in broad use today, though they aren’t quite effective and take a considerable amount of time.
– What is your current role at GreenGene all about?
– So far I’ve worked with information, get my head around the activity and settle organizational issues. For instance, I prepared technical specification for the data base that will help to make our tests better. The reaction of plants of various kinds to phytopathogens differs, and the data base will help match plants with pathogens to consider their interactions and come up with treatment recommendations. I don’t do any research work, however it is impossible to arrange organizational matters and tell about the company without mastering the scientific part of it. I’m also in touch with potential clients at such events as the opent Innovations, and more.
Of course, there are many unusual tasks I have to do as well. I could never have thought that one day I would have to get down to designing a website. You have to process lots of information in many languages. I understood that while adapting, the most challenging is to overcome this period. There are moments when something goes wrong or haywire, not the way you wanted to, and it’s very important to go on.
– What are you planning to do after the project? Would it be interesting to continue your work at GreenGene?
– Actually, what I’m doing now is really interesting. The project was to a large extend thought of as an employment opportunity in these startups, and if I’m invited to work here after the apprenticeship, I will be really glad. The problem of phytopathogens in general proved to be rather exciting, and the company has a way to go. For example, a similar technology would be useful for farming.
Before taking part in this project, I had some experience in bog study and turf, and this science area is still interesting to me now. If i decide to go on to get a Master’s degree in Tomsk, I will definitely go back to this topic. I would like to work with paleoecologic reconstructions, when based on the remnants of plants in the peat one can understand how a bog was forms, which stages it passed through and what kind of plants grew in it. There is still no unified data base of plants and moths that generate peat in Western Siberia, and it would be great to compile such an atlas.
The material was prepared with the support of the Fund of Presidential Grants.
Date: December 3, 2019