Women and the vital role they play in revolutionizing alternative proteins

Meet four women paving the way for innovations in alternative protein science.
An image of a scientistic using a microscope

We need everyone at the table

Advances in alternative proteins are happening fast as more researchers and funding flow into the field. To build a truly equitable food system, these opportunities can not be limited to just those from a certain gender, race, or socioeconomic status.

Representation of women and other minority groups in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) is not just a moral imperative, it can produce better research and project outcomes that benefit everyone. While STEM fields are commonly acknowledged as essential for national economies, achieving gender equality in STEM has proven elusive for most countries, regardless of their level of development. 

According to UNESCO, female researchers are typically given smaller research grants than their male colleagues—  and while they represent 33.3% of all researchers, only 12% of members of national science academies are women. Female researchers also tend to have shorter, less well-paid careers.

The alternative protein industry is not immune to these larger cultural inequities. In the 2021 edition of the industry report by the Vegan Women Summit, it was revealed that 80% of women founders in the alternative protein, plant-based, and foodtech sectors surveyed have encountered gender bias in fundraising over the past year. This bias has hindered their ability to secure investor funding.

For minority and LGBTQ+ women, the gap between the global scientific community and the alternative protein industry is even more stark.

Those of us committed to building a more sustainable food system must remember that we need everyone at the table to enact lasting and meaningful change. We are proud to work with brilliant women around the world who are doing just that.

Meet four women leaving their mark on the scientific ecosystem of alternative proteins.

Nikhita Mansukhani Kogar, Ph.D.

“Diversity of thought leads to better outcomes, period. We need as many perspectives as possible to create better solutions, reach more people, and achieve our goals. Also, for women and girls, a scientific education and career are much more than a way to earn money. They are a means to securing independence, meaning, and a place in creating our future.”

Nikhita mansukhani kogar modified

What led you to work in the alternative protein industry?

I have always loved science and math, from the most fundamental to the most interdisciplinary, applied topics. My trajectory mirrors that spectrum in some ways. I started in physics because I was fascinated by using math to describe our world. I ultimately pursued my Ph.D. in materials science because I want to use science to do good. After working in biotech and food product development for several years, most recently as a scientist at Beyond Meat, I joined GFI U.S. as the Senior Lead Scientist for the plant-based pillar in 2023 to affect change on a broader scale.

Which project related to alternative proteins has been your favorite to work on?

I have too many to name from my time at Beyond Meat! I had a wide range of projects, from early proofs-of-concept to scaling up new formulations. One of my favorite projects was scaling up an ingredient I helped create and then applying it to a new product. It was so fun because I was able to use my skills in a values-aligned field and learn so much while working alongside some of the brightest, most motivated people I know.

What unique opportunities for alternative proteins exist in your local area?

California is truly a unique state agriculturally — it is responsible for over a third of the nation’s vegetables and nearly three-quarters of its fruits and nuts while producing the most dairy of any state.* California also has a diverse research and scientific ecosystem, including many food tech and alternative protein companies. With all of this in one state, there are unique opportunities for using crop “leftovers” or side streams for alternative protein production. As detailed in our recent analysis, sidestream utilization would build a more efficient, affordable, and sustainable alternative protein industry.

Padma Ishwarya S., Ph.D.

“It is important to have equal representation of women and girls in technical fields as we bring diverse ideas, out-of-the-box thinking, multidimensional approaches, and innovative perspectives to address a research problem. Like any other field, the involvement of women in scientific professions will provide numerous opportunities for self-development and make them economically independent. Enhanced representation of women in scientific disciplines will encourage young girls to take up their education and careers in STEM.”

Padma ishwarya s. Ph. D. Modified

What led you to work in the alternative protein industry?

My passion for food science dates back to 2005 when I chose to pursue my Bachelor’s degree. Truly fascinated by its interdisciplinary scientific nature and the technical skills that it imparts to make the food that the world loves, I decided to explore this field further. I completed my Master’s degree in Food Technology, after which I worked with one of the largest FMCG companies in the world. The industry experience instilled self-confidence and gave me valuable management skills. My quest for knowledge motivated me to pursue a PhD which led to new opportunities in food research and innovation. My belief in ‘doing science with a purpose’ led me to work on sustainable food projects in school and ultimately to GFI India as a Science & Technology Specialist.

Which project related to alternative proteins has been your favorite to work on?

For my postdoctoral research, I studied how a protein-rich part of used coffee beans could work as a surfactant. The isolated plant protein showed significant foaming and emulsification properties at a low concentration compared to synthetic food-grade surfactants. The protein fraction demonstrated the potential to replace dairy and egg-based ingredients. The chemical composition and secondary structure of the protein-rich fraction from spent coffee revealed interesting correlations with its functional properties. The science of plant proteins is always fascinating and unveils novel insights when one comprehensively investigates them. This project is my favorite as it not only unleashed the potential of plant proteins but also led to the valorization and conversion of an industrial waste stream into high-value food ingredients. Indeed, this research project paved my way into the world of plant-based alternative proteins, which is highly relevant to all the work that I do in my current role at GFI India.

What unique opportunities for alternative proteins exist in your local area?

India is known for its rich crop biodiversity. Leveraging indigenous crops of India such as pulses, legumes, millets, pseudocereals, and protein-rich leafy vegetables shows promising potential to diversify the ingredient basket of the alternative protein industry. For example, amaranth is a protein-rich pseudo-cereal that can be grown easily in any environment due to its climate-resilient nature. Amaranth protein contains all the nine essential amino acids. Mechanization of the primary processing of grains can facilitate their applicability as a protein source. Additionally, specific ingredients derived from unique plant sources in India can be used as coloring and flavoring agents for plant-based meat products. For example, the bright red flowers of Rhododendron arboreum, widely distributed in the Himalayan region, are a rich source of the natural pigment namely anthocyanin which can potentially replace synthetic colorants used in foods. Therefore, the right crops must be identified, processed minimally to extract proteins and other valuable ingredients, and made available at an optimal price to the manufacturing sector. If all these opportunities are utilized appropriately, India can emerge as the global hub for plant-based alternative protein products.

Seren Kell

“Working on intellectually challenging problems to improve the world around us is a privilege. Limiting that privilege to only certain groups is a tragedy on at least two levels – women and other minorities are denied access to professional satisfaction, and the rest of the world is denied access to their ingenuity. With massive, cross-cutting societal challenges – such as fixing our global food system – if the solutions aren’t proposed by a representative and diverse group of stakeholders, it makes it less likely they will be truly inclusive, fair, and as impactful as they need to be.”

Seren kell modified

What led you to work in the alternative protein industry?

My background is in molecular and cellular biochemistry – specifically in understanding the fundamental processes that underlie human aging. In 2017, I became familiar with GFI while exploring the idea of starting a cultivated meat company. While this company never came to fruition, I kept one foot in the alt protein world and co-founded Cellular Agriculture UK while working as a research manager at a startup called IN-PART. During this time, I learned how important academic, pre-competitive research is in building the pipeline of future technologies that can scale, disseminate, and ultimately provide public benefit. However, much of this work was focused on the pharmaceutical, chemical, and materials sectors. I was infinitely more excited by alternative proteins and food. When GFI Europe started hiring for its first scientist role, I leaped at the chance to apply!

Which project related to alternative proteins has been your favorite to work on?

I enjoyed working with EIT Food last year to run a joint innovation challenge focused on reducing cell culture media costs for cultivated meat. EIT Food — an EU funded food innovation community — has a network whose membership includes hundreds of startups and universities across Europe. It was really exciting to be able to collaborate with them and leverage their platform to disseminate the major research priorities for alternative proteins to such a wide audience. This was reflected in the submitted proposals we received, where people who were new to the space were using their creativity to apply new technologies and approaches — in fascinating and under-explored ways – to reduce the cost of cultivated meat production.

What unique opportunities for alternative proteins exist in your local area?

While not exclusive to the UK or Europe, each region faces unique opportunities and challenges in repairing its flawed food system. This task is vast, complex, and carries significant implications. Although many agree on the basic vision of what a sustainable, just, and secure food system might look like, different groups have different ideas for the most effective way to get us there.  I view alternative proteins as an essential component, enhancing and even enabling numerous other solutions. Uniting to propel a shared vision for what absolutely needs to happen, while respecting and considering these varying perspectives, is both an important opportunity and challenge for the industry.

Wasamon Nutakul, Ph.D.

“We are in an era where we need innovative ideas to solve global crises. We need different ways of thinking and collaborating, and I believe women hold the key to unlocking the solutions to some of these complex problems. It’s a missed opportunity to exclude the talents and unique perspective that women can offer.”

Wasamon nutakul ph. D. Modified

What led you to work in the alternative protein industry?

I have a background in biochemistry and food science. Working in the food industry demonstrated to me both the capacity of food production and the existing inefficiency and waste of food production. These experiences, coupled with the rapid advancement in other fields of science and technology, made me question “how” we are producing food. This led me to explore novel and more sustainable ways of food production with alternative proteins as GFI APAC’s SciTech Manager.

Which project related to alternative proteins has been your favorite to work on?

I enjoy projects where I am mapping out the landscape of alternative proteins in the Asia Pacific region. Most recently this has included working on talent initiatives in Singapore, supporting the development of a cultivated meat regulatory framework for Thailand, and building a report on the untapped potential of mung beans. I like making unexpected discoveries when I’m working on projects like these and learning from different stakeholders in the ecosystem. It’s fulfilling to learn something new that challenges my status quo thinking. 

What unique opportunities for alternative proteins exist in your local area?

Asia has a huge untapped opportunity for alternative proteins; it is currently the region with the highest GDP and exponential increase in population. Asia produces a significant amount of food for the rest of the world, and working with the Asia food system has the potential to bring down the cost of these novel technologies. The main roadblock for Asia is that some governments here lack an understanding of the potential benefits of alt proteins and, as such, are not paying much attention to them. This results in limited public funding support. So we must think about how alternative proteins will lift Asia’s economy and lower the environmental impact of its food supply chain.

Help build a just and sustainable food system

We are dedicated to advancing foundational, open-access research in alternative proteins and creating a thriving research and training ecosystem around these game-changing fields — for everyone. Explore some of our resources dedicated to increasing diversity and collaboration in the alt protein science community.

A group of individuals working at a table together

Needs assessment on building an inclusive alternative protein workforce

This report reviews challenges faced by scholars from underrepresented groups and describes opportunities for GFI and its partners to transform career development experiences for these individuals.

Researchers working in a lab

Alternative Protein Researcher Directory

Explore the global landscape of researchers working to advance the science of plant-based meat, cultivated meat, and fermentation.


Chelsea montes de oca


Chelsea Montes de Oca coordinates GFI’s messaging and global publishing activities, providing editorial review and cohesion to our blogs, reports, and other key resources. Areas of expertise: ethical storytelling, strategic messaging, writing, and intercultural communication