Entrepreneurs’ journey is complex, and with biotechnology, it becomes more complex. However, more than 20 per cent of our start-ups have good success stories, informs Dr Renu Swarup, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology, and Chairperson, BIRAC to Akanki Sharma in a one-on-one interaction
Since its inception, how has BIRAC been supporting the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry?
As it shows in the name, Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) was set up seven years back to support the biotechnology industry — it’s the industry and the assistance which comes in. It was not just a large industry, but our focus was to try and see how we can support the startups and create a strong and vibrant innovation ecosystem. The main areas which we have focussed on after our partnership with the industry is primarily connecting the academia with the industry. Since that was a missing link, our first and foremost action was to connect these and make it into a platform. The second was building capacities — to facilitate academic researchers to take their ideas and become startups and entrepreneurs and help them to move ahead. The third and most important focus was on how we make our Indian industry globally competitive — to take forward what they are already doing in terms of policy interventions and helping create the correct ecosystem. So, BIRAC has successfully been able to work through all these and it also looks at bringing in strategic partnership – both national and international.
The biotechnology sector is growing exponentially. The target is to reach $100 billion by 2025. Where does India stand in this and how is BIRAC going to accelerate this?
We had put out an action plan in 2016 when the government brought out the Start Up India Action Plan and this number of $100 billion by 2025 was in our 2015 strategy that was announced in December. Our main target is to scale up the number of startups. Thus, we had then said that we will have 2000 startups by 2020. While we directly support 1000, but the ecosystem itself has a large number in it (around 1700-1800), we do say that anything that happens within the biotech sector, somewhere the enabling factor has come from DBT and BIRAC. We have created incubation facilities, mentor groups and more importantly, we have brought investors on the front who can recognise and appreciate the biotech innovations. According to a report, we were somewhere around $45 billion at the bioeconomy as a whole. Going by those numbers, $100 billion seems a doable figure by 2025, and we will have a large number of initiatives that we have proposed — like facilitating new product development, building capacities and more importantly, focussing on building the infrastructure, and a lot is happening for biopharma through the National Biopharma Mission.
Tell us about the National Biopharma Mission.
In the National Biopharma Mission, we focus on new product development, creating shared infrastructure facilities and building capacities. However, each of these have their own different challenges. Looking at the product vertical, the main objective is to prioritise and decide the importance in terms of disease burden and develop an indigenous product. And, the challenge is to take it quickly to the market, look out for the regulatory policies required to enable to facilitate that, connect what is happening within the country with what is already available globally and ensure what we are making is not just globally competitive, but is also cost-effective and affordable for our own national needs. Coming to infrastructure, the challenge is that we do have infrastructure within the country today but it’s either within the government system, the public system or in the private sector. Hence, it is not affordable for the startups because there are competitive CROs working on it. So, there our effort is on how we can identify the best groups, partner with them — either create new ones or strengthen existing ones — and make them available and accessible to our startups and researchers. So, we are looking at all— cell line repositories and GLP facilities, among others, and all other facilities required in taking a lead to a product development. We are also looking at new vaccine development in terms of contributing from the research factor.
Any examples for this new vaccine development?
We are looking at various priorities – vaccines for RSV, influenza, cholera and tuberculosis (TB). And, the priorities will keep coming in. We may also look at new technologies which are brought into the country. So, there are various models in which we would function as we cannot have one model looking at all aspects.
BIRAC also has a number of collaborations with UK-based NESTA, Wellcome Trust and IKP Knowledge Park. Please elaborate on that.
The underlined philosophy of BIRAC is that we carry out all our activities through well-defined and well-identified strategic partnerships — be it national or international. Our models of partnership are different but the whole principle behind the partnership is that the partners we choose, add strength to whatever we are doing — be it connecting with larger networks where our startups can get access to larger market, investors, etc or co-funding partners where they bring in their funds and help us to look at co-funding opportunities, or in terms of larger partnerships where they bring in country-to-country partnership. Our largest co-funding partnership is with the Gates Foundation. We have a project management unit (PMU) which is funded by the Gates Foundation and the WellcomeTrust, and DBT is the main government partner in that, which is responsible for running a large number of Grand Challenges India programmes. Apart form it, we have Grand Challenges Explorations and many more. There is Anti-Microbial Resistance — a four-countries challenge – Brazil, South Africa, Africa and India. We are also developing a partnership now with Grand Challenges Canada to see how we can work on innovations which are in the market place.
How is the partnership with Canada different from Brazil, Africa and South Africa?
Grand Challenges Canada is a funding body. DBT has an MoU with Grand Challenges Canada which we are wanting to take forward as they look at innovations which come from across the world. So, we feel that we will be able to bring in our innovators at a level where they can compete for those global innovations through the Grand Challenges Canada.
Kindly elaborate on the partnerships with WellcomeTrust and NESTA.
We are looking at MedTech Challenge that we will put out with the Gates Foundation and the WellcomeTrust which will look at all medical areas. The other partnerships are also with countries like Sweden and Finland. Recently, BIRAC took a whole delegation of incubators from India to Sweden to see how we can connect the incubated ecosystem. We have sister innovation hubs and C-Camp in Bengaluru is funded by BIRAC. We have signed an agreement with the US for an Indo-US sister innovation hub, and one with with the UK too. The purpose of these sister innovation hubs is to find out how our startups can have an exchange within the ecosystems, how they will have access to those markets, how their startups can look at markets in India and how they can connect with investors. NESTA is working with Innovate UK, where globally they put out a challenge for AMR to see which group can come up and bid for a large price of eight or 10 million pounds. So, we felt that Indian innovators need to be strengthened to go for it. Thus, we have launched an India Discovery Fund with NESTA, under which we go with their panel of experts and evaluate everything. We have our own evaluators there, but that is for Indian innovators. So, it helps them to improve their research, so that they could be ready to pitch in for that large price. As of now, 11 innovators have been funded in two rounds. We are also considering an assessment now to see which of them have done well and they may need to get a second phase of grant if they are a little closer to submitting their applications for the price.
Tell us about the Sustainable Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development (SEED) programme.
Sustainable Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development (SEED) and Launching Entrepreneurial Driven Affordable Products (LEAP) — the new one we have put in — funds are run through our incubators, under which we give them a fixed amount so that startups can invest. Under SEED fund, they can invest upto Rs 30 lakhs and under the LEAP fund, the investment can be up to Rs 1 crore. So, we have created a whole value chain of going from an initial big grant of Rs 50 lakhs to going right upto getting some funding for their project development. Some of it happens through the grants. The next level is where we give them equity funds— SEED, LEAP and ACE. We have now set up a product commercialisation unit in BIRAC. It is when we identify products and technologies which are ready to go to the market, we actually become partners with them and identify what their needs are. If they need any assistance in regulatory matters, there is a committee set up in BIRAC — first hub, which meets every first Friday of the month, where if innovators, researchers, startups and companies cannot connect to the market through the portal, physical meetings or Skype, we have a whole group of DBT, ICMR, DCG(I), BIRAC — all officials sitting in one place and resolve their queries. This is to make sure that we help them to connect with the end-market user, so that the products we identify can be taken to the market.
How is the Bharat Innovation Fund launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi helping lifesciences and biotechnology?
In 2016, we spoke of the Bharat Innovation Fund, we thought that it would be the only fund that will work but it did not really work the way we had thought it would. The Government of India has launched an equity fund for biotech which is being executed through BIRAC — accelerating entrepreneurs (ACE) fund — to take forward their research and that’s fund of funds. We have also invited various other funding institutions to come forward — all those which are SEBI —registered and are into lifesciences and healthsciences sector. We have selected seven different funds as partners and Bharat Innovation fund is one of those partners. Our fund is of Rs 150 crore which we have currently committed to these seven partners — more than 50 per cent of it. We hope to be able to identify more partners, as we move on.
How do you see the future of startups in India?
The startup culture is here to stay and the policies we are putting in for enabling the startup ecosystem will only grow. It will only compliment and identify what is missing and add value to that by bringing new policies. However, our challenge today is looking at the scalability and sustainability of the ecosystem, and we are trying to address that at the moment. Each of these components, bringing in the LEAP and ACE funds, product commercialisation unit, building bilateral cooperations for connecting ecosystems — these are all enablers in that direction. Even though there are many challenges regarding the sustainability of these start ups, the biggest one is that a start up has to make sure that whatever idea they are taking forward, there is a market need for it. Many a times, there is no proper need assessment and that’s where BIRAC and government plays an important role. When we get into investing in them at their ignition grant stage, we do a thorough diligence to see whether their idea has a market potential. If there is no market potential, they don’t get funded. The reason is that it is a highly-competitive funding process and it’s also to ensure that those who get funded have a correct path to follow. So, they need to be connected with technical and business mentors to take it forward. Even after selecting an idea which has got a market potential, it can still fail because it’s all about science. Entrepreneurs’ journey is complex, and with biotechnology, it becomes more complex. However, more than 20 per cent of our start-ups have good success stories.