Juha-Pekka Pitkänen: from idea to impact

The ability to focus on practical developments that will help commercialise the research continues to provide satisfaction to Solar Foods co-founder and CTO, Dr Juha-Pekka Pitkänen.

Taking research from the lab to the market has been a feature of Dr Juha-Pekka Pitkänen’s career. During his time as a scientist at systems biology firm Medicel he developed a sampling and parallel cultivation device for bioprocesses which became the company’s first product. As chief technology officer of BioSampler he oversaw the commercialisation of an automated sterile sampling system from industrial fermentations for online monitoring and control of bioprocesses.

This system was based on patented technology developed at the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT), where he was principal scientist from June 2011 to March 2018 with responsibility for bioprocess development for production of fuels and chemicals in customer and publicly funded projects, and development of methods and equipment for automation of industrial biotechnology development process, as well as project planning and management.

Technology to fight famine

Dr Pitkänen explains that he decided to become a co-founder of Solar Foods because after many years of doing research, it opened up an opportunity to commercialise some of the research results.

“I had tried a few years earlier with a different concept, but it quickly became apparent that it was not promising, and I had previously worked in a start-up company owned by others, which also did not yield commercial success,” he recalls. “When it became clear to me that there was interest in the concept behind Solar Foods, it was an easy decision to go for it.”

The Solar Foods team estimates that energy from the sun can be used up to ten times more efficiently than it is at present. Current protein-producing processes rely primarily on photosynthesis in plants.

Dr Pitkänen stresses that there is nothing wrong with photosynthesis per se, simply that the method employed by Solar Foods benefits from a more direct path to the sun’s power. The company is optimistic that in the longer term the technology could be used in factories located in areas at high risk of food shortages and famine, which would be a more sustainable solution than bringing in food supplies from other areas.

Focus on commercial development

When asked to assess the specific challenges of bringing a new food product to market, he says that it has to taste good, be available at the right price, convenient to prepare and be both healthy and sustainable. “Even though our food ingredient is highly sustainable, it still has to fulfil all the other criteria,” he adds. “In the end, it has to be appealing to consumers.”

He describes himself as more of a developer than a researcher, someone who is focused on commercial development and not just the goals of basic research. “What I have learned from my past experience is that we have to maintain our focus.  My mantra is ‘the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing’ and I constantly remind myself of this.”

Dr Pitkänen places great importance on the opportunity to work on products that are of personal interest. “It is vital that a CTO believes in the product or technology they are working on – for me it would not work any other way,” he concludes. “No-one forces me to do anything, so all the motivation has to come from within. I need to believe that what I am doing will have an impact.”