The unwilling entrepreneur

Doctor Ram Nair is a scientist to the core, as well as being a bit of a fungus nerd, but if as an entrepreneur he can change the world and in the long term feed more people without having to kill things or use vast areas to grow crops – then so be it.

Perhaps Ram Nair had a few moments of doubt when at the age of 23 he stepped off the plane at Landvetter into an icy west wind, wearing only a fleece jacket. For someone who grew up in Kerala, India, it was anything but a warm welcome.

We meet him in Gamlestaden in Gothenburg, where he’s got used to life in Sweden although the spring sunshine isn’t so warm.

“It was a spontaneous decision to come to Gothenburg to continue the research that I’d started in India. My parents were rather shocked.”

What helped Ram Nair beat the cold was the countless hours he spent in the lab with his mycoprotein and the fact that the result was a fungus protein patented in 2017. He felt he could conquer the world with this new food.

Calls them his cows

Drama school and script writing, as well as the spicy, colourful food of India dominated his adolescence, but this made way for a new life involving industrially produced protein, made without using animals or slaughter houses. Nor did it require large areas for the cultivation of protein-rich crops.

Knowing that more than 30 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions stems from food production, and that the world’s population needs more food, the global climate crisis demands that we re-think our ideas.

Ram paints exciting future scenarios of how to meet the world’s need for nutritious, locally produced food using relatively simple fermentation technology. In principle all you need is some water and some form of carbohydrate. He believes that the next Mycorena factory may be in the Sahara, China or India.

In Mycorena’s production hall there are several fermentation cisterns containing fungus protein. Ram calls them his cows, as in 24 hours the amount of protein produced is equivalent to a cow. But they doesn’t require large pastures or barns.

In his latest drive to find investors (Round A) Ram raised 240 billion SEK to fund the commercialisation of the mycoprotein, Promyc.

“I’ve never seen myself as an entrepreneur, but more as a hard-working researcher. But entrepreneurship requires creativity, so acting and directing were useful skills to have. The opportunity to make something new is the stimulus to creating a company. It also helps me to accept the entrepreneur role too.”

Put off some investors

Being a manager and employing people is another challenge.

“In the beginning I wasn’t a polite Swedish gentleman but was very driven and pushy. When I look back I understand why it was only young trainees, who liked things to happen fast and who saw the potential in Mycorena, who put up with me. Today all of them have management positions. Their average age is 27. I’m the oldest at 33. Since then we’ve made a really good team. I like having genuine relationships both with my co-workers and potential investors.”

Ram believes that his wish to be open and transparent initially put off some investors. He decided early on not to say the things potential business angels wanted to hear, but to present them with as many facts as possible.

“I can see quite quickly if an investor is alright with a techie who tells the truth.”

Ram thinks it’s interesting that in the startup phase it was industry people who’d earned their own money who were ready to invest.

”They didn’t mind that we didn’t have answers to everything when they saw that we were investing our energy, and our lives, in an idea we believed in.”

”I think that our first investors wanted to help us because we were like children – and really vulnerable.”

Likes green vegetables

Like all fairy stories with a happy ending, timing was key. The demand for protein-based food which doesn’t involve killing things has increased enormously. This is “new food” as some people have started to call it.

Ram’s business ticks all the boxes. Their product is climate-friendly, sustainable and good for people’s health. But for him it’s more important that the business really makes a difference rather than it has the right labels.

“It’s just as important for me to make a difference by, for example, creating job opportunities for people who want to make long-term changes. That’s the sort of thing that gets me out of bed in the mornings.”

He believes that his company can help low and middle-income societies to skip the major change to plant-based food and instead develop protein-based food supplies in easily-run factories who can be located in most places – even the desert.

“We won’t need major advertising campaigns which condemn meat if we can produce food which in taste and nutritional properties is similar to meat, but is much more economical and affects the climate less.

When Ram Nair isn’t working, he still comes to the office to water his plants. He likes green things – and good food.

“Pepper and I come from the same place, so I like strong flavours. And for me, slow-cooking is an essential ritual.”

In Gothenburg Ram likes to discover anonymous, hidden places to eat, where they serve good food from all over the world. The Majorna neighbourhood is a good place to find them he thinks.

“It’s easy to enjoy life in Gothenburg with its welcoming, international atmosphere. It’s a bit of an expat city, and an inclusive one at that.”

What Ram seems to appreciate most is space – both physical and mental.

“There’s room here to find your own way. Sometimes it’s a bit difficult when nobody tells you what you should and shouldn’t do. You have to work that out yourself.”

It sounds as if Ram’ll be in Gothenburg a good while longer, watching the company grow along with the mycoprotein.

“Now I’m hoping that the growing food cluster here will tempt more talented people to Gothenburg. We’re always looking for them.” says Ram Nair.

Text: Ulrica Segersten

Image: Samuel Unéus

The text was originally published in Gothenburg Magazine 2022

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