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Dr Malathy Venkatesan, Tata Chemicals

The Scientist Behind The Sweetness

Tata Chemicals' Dr Malathy Venkatesan expounds on her mission to serve society through science

September 2022     |     628 words     |     2-minute read

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Ask Dr Malathy Venkatesan, chief scientist at Tata Chemicals Ltd’s (TCL) Innovation Centre (IC), what her greatest achievement is, and pat comes the reply, “Working on the sugar substitute Tata Nx Zero Sugar, mahua syrup extract and the surface cleaner powder developed during the pandemic.”

Dr Venkatesan’s love for science started at a young age. Her mother, a Maths teacher, believed that science had all the answers and nudged her children to explore the wonders of science. Although Dr Venkatesan’s parents passed away when she was in her teens, she and her siblings continued the path of science to fulfil their parents’ dream.

After completing her master’s degree in microbiology, Dr Venkatesan took a two-year break to take care of her infant son. She then went on to complete her PhD before working as a professor at the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai.

A microbiologist, a lecturer, a scientist, Dr Venkatesan has seen both sides of the scientific world. Starting off as an academician, she worked as a professor for 5 years before entering the industry. Beginning her industry career with a personal care products company, she moved to a biotech firm where she worked on enzymes followed by stints at a food ingredients and supplements company, and the Protein Food Development Association of India.

“Over time I felt the need to do more than just contribute to science solely for academic or commercial purposes. I wanted to give back to society and that’s when I heard about Tata Chemicals’ Innovation Centre,” says Dr Venkatesan.

At the job interview for the post of food formulation scientist, Dr Venkatesan recalls, “I realised that TCL is not just a chemicals-manufacturing company but had much more to offer. I visited the labs with state-of-the-art equipment and made up my mind to join the organisation.”

In her six-and-a-half-year stint at TCL, Dr Venkatesan has worked on various projects. She began work on Fructo-oligosaccharide or FOSSENCE®, the 100% soluble, potent prebiotic and dietary fibre made from fermented cane sugar and helped launch 1gm sachets of Tata Nx Zero Sugar in 2017.

Harnessing science for good

“In 2016, when we presented this sweet-tasting fibre in pure form to Mr Gopalakrishnan, the then vice chairman of TCL, he suggested we apply it for the larger good of society,” says Dr Venkatesan. Her team then went on to use the fibre as a sugar substitute, which was patented. Since then, Tata Chemicals has launched various FOSSENCE® based products like sweeteners, candy and used it as a component in food manufacturing industries.

Another project that Dr Venkatesan is very passionate about is the work done to obtain a sugar-free substitute from the mahua flower extract. “The mahua-extract project had many challenges,” she says, adding, “First, sourcing mahua flowers, which are predominantly found in the tribal areas of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha; then removing the flavour and smell from the extract to name a few.” Not one to give up easily, Dr Venkatesan and her team, after trial and error, eventually succeeded in creating the sugar substitute.

Dr Venkatesan now wants to focus on extracts of other natural products like curcumin. Towards this, they have set up a polyhouse at the Innovation Centre.

Her interest in using science for good has her working closely with IC’s cross functional team (CFT) that launched a surface cleaner during Covid. The product, created in collaboration with the local community in 2020 and launched during the pandemic, has helped the community secure a livelihood. “The CFT,” she says, “has scientists from different streams — physicists, chemists, biotechnologists, nutritionists — working towards harnessing science for greater good.”

There’s no better way to live up to Tata Chemicals’ tagline — Service society through science — which is what Dr Venkatesan and her team are striving to do.

—Sanghamitra Bhowmik

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