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Revitalising Indian Biotech

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The recently launched National Biotechnology Development Strategy (NBDS) 2015-20 is expected to propel India’s biotech industry on an accelerated growth path and help achieve its true potential. By Sachin Jagdale

With the objective of giving an impetus to Indian biotech industry, Government of India established the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) under the Ministry of Science and Technology in 1986. Almost three decades later, the Indian biotech sector has not reached its full potential and not received its due in the international market.

The biotech industry in India, comprising about 800 companies, is growing at an average rate of about 20 per cent. The Indian biotechnology sector is expected to grow from the current $ 5-7 billion to $100 billion by 2025, growing at an average rate of 30 per cent, as per Dr Harsh Vardhan, Union Minister for Science and Technology. (Source: http://www.ibef.org/industry/biotechnology-india.aspx).

To boost India’s chances of becoming world’s biotech hub, Harsh Vardhan recently unveiled The National Biotechnology Development Strategy (NBDS) 2015-20. The industry is optimistic that NBDS will surely put the biotech sector on the growth track.

Hurdles to overcome

Former Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had once said that BT (biotechnology) stands for ‘Bharat Tomorrow’. Though NBDS can be considered as an important step in this direction, reasons behind the sluggish growth of the biotech industry in India should also be discussed.

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Sharad Dahatonde

Sharad Dahatonde, Biotechnology Consultant, Elder Pharmaceuticals says, “DBT is very supportive and there have been a number of dispensations offered by both the central government and various states to encourage the growth of the biotech industry. However, inspite of these steps, Indian biotech industry’s global share is just around two per cent.”

Giving reasons for the slow progress, he adds, “We failed to develop and launch patented bio products in international market. We are challenging European and US companies only in the generic bio space. We will have to set up EU/US FDA approvable manufacturing facilities for biologicals. This not only needs finance but also skills to run large bioreactors and processing plants as well as strong research and development capabilities. Indian biotech companies have to focus on innovation, especially in the biopharma product space. The Indian biopharma regulatory system has seen a lot of changes and structure over the last 10 years, but there seems to be room to shape it further to take on global challenges and face tough competition to achieve global recognition. A clear regulatory framework would also be able to address the inventions and discoveries in the area of biotechnology in a more inclusive manner.”

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Dr PM Murali

India is taking time to emerge as a biotech power because we were completely new to this field, feels, Dr PM Murali, President, Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises (ABLE) India. “In India, we had to start biotechnology from scratch. The first phase was building the infrastructure. This took a number of years with little money being allocated by the government. The whole sector was built incrementally,” he elaborates. He quips, “The gains of setting up this science will slowly start emerging as tangible benefits. Every second child uses an Indian vaccine. Is this not credible proof? It would not be wise to be dismissive of the achievement of biotechnology or the department.”

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Sachin Purohit

According to Sachin Purohit, Managing Director, Genome Biotechnologies, increasing the number of trained manpower oriented towards biotech took a significant time, as there were lesser career opportunities in biotech as compared to IT etc. “Biotech sector unlike IT, demands lot of capital investment and hence typical investment return period is more. This is a major reason why formation of biotech research facilities in government and private sectors is at a slower rate. Also as compared to the international industry, our spend on biotech R&D is way too minuscule, similar to pharma R&D,” informs Purohit.

Despite all scepticism surrounding the Indian biotech industry, Purohit feels that there is a silver lining to the cloud as well. He says, “However, many research projects are on the threshold of amazing breakthroughs and hence though late, biotech sector shall certainly come up with major developments from India, in the areas of agriculture, food, clinical research etc.”

NBDS to the rescue?

NBDS was launched twice in November 2007, while its improved version came into being recently in December 2015. Both these versions aim at promoting bioscience research, education and entrepreneurship. The latest format of NBDS is the result of formal and informal consultations over the past two years with more than 300 stakeholders. These stakeholders include scientists, educationists, policy makers, leaders of industry and civil society, voluntary and non-government organisations, regulators and international experts. This development has been hailed as the most genuine attempt ever by any Indian Government to make the country a biotech hub of the world.

Murali says, “The whole ecosystem now is on nurturing start-ups. There are several initiatives being taken simultaneously, starting from grants to putting up incubators. We should invest close to $3-5 billion year-on-year.”

The DBT has successfully launched and implemented several schemes mentioned in NBDS. According to Purohit, the start-ups especially have benefitted from the above programmes, directly or indirectly due to the availability of trained manpower, availability of incubation centres in various cities in India and research schemes for start-ups.

NBDS’ major achievement is the strong base of indigenous capabilities it has created, which was hardly evident before. Though big biotech players were always in a position to back themselves in difficult circumstances, NBDS has provided small and medium size biotech companies a platform to grow and sustain themselves in the competition.

Dahatonde narrates the key benefits offered by NBDS. He informs, “PPP models have been successfully implemented and a new section 25 company a Public Sector Undertaking, Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), has been established to exclusively work on PPP programs in biotechnology. BIRAC has a financial assistance scheme called Biotechnology Industry Partnership Programme (BIPP) which is a unique initiative with industry for support on a cost sharing basis for a development of novel and high-risk futuristic technologies in key areas of national importance and public good. The DBT is operating this scheme to promote and nurture innovation in research in biotech enterprises, specially start-ups and SMEs.”

He adds, “Most of the new initiatives announced in the 2007 strategy are in place. Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) has identified and supported many innovative, nationally relevant ideas/products/processes for further development and commercialisation. A network of technology centres and promotion of start-ups by Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI) are among the steps taken by the Government of India to promote innovation and entrepreneurship in the agro industry proposed by the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises in a new scheme.”

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Shakthi Nagappan

Shakthi Nagappan, CEO, BioAsia says, “The NBDS involves establishment of a technology development and translation network across India with global partnership, including five new clusters and 40 biotech incubators. These initiatives promise to be largest impact generators and are sure to benefit many healthcare startups. In this context there is a startup showcase being organised with the support of Government of India in the upcoming BioAsia 2016, which will offer a platform for the start-ups with disruptive ideas in Healthcare, Biotech and Life sciences sector; and mentor them. Startups will benefit from a combined effort that involves government, industry and academia at BioAsia.”

Retaining the biotech talent

For the last many years lack of infrastructure and technological facilities have made many Indian researchers shift their base overseas where there are enough opportunities waiting for them. Has losing talent this way hampered the growth of the Indian biotechnology sector? Should bringing back talent also be one of motives of NBDS?

Dahatonde says, “Yes. As per recent National Biotechnology Development Strategy, to keep abreast with the latest developments and meet the needs of trained manpower in the rapidly advancing field of biotechnology, it is important to attract talent. In this context, opportunities for overseas scientists to work in India would be created. Also, skilled post doctorates and scientists should be encouraged to pursue their research activity in India through attractive remuneration. Provisions such as Science Chair would be created to attract the best brains.”

However, Murali feels that red tapism is still a problem in India. Unless such problems are taken care of, convincing overseas biotech talent to come back to India would be difficult.

Murali explains his point of view, “We have been sending mixed messages to the world. On one hand we want people to come and invest and then on the other hand we will not give approvals and bash GMO. How can anybody work if the basic confidence that their hard work will not be translated into a product in the country they have invented it? This could be a strong reason for scientists to move to more liberal locations. Bringing back trained talent will help India to quickly skill a lot of people. This is one of the effective ways.”

Expecting more

NBDS is undoubtedly a very effective step towards making India a biotech hub. Indian Government should be applauded for the way they have framed NBDS. It will surely help cover the backlog of the Indian biotech industry. However, experts do feel that future strategies will have a scope to add few more things for the industry.

Purohit expects more focus on applied research when strategy will be underway. He wants foreign collaborations to bring research grants even at individual researcher level, rather than depending only on in house grants. Facilitating implementation of research at the earliest and helping commercialisation through PPP will help the industry, feels Purohit.

“The aim is to grow the sector to $100 billion. There has to be an ecosystem that needs to be created and also all the enablers including transparent regulatory processes has to be in place. This would mean good investments to back the convictions. For this to happen, we have to regularise the ease of doing business, simplify taxation and R&D incentives as well as the treatment of capital and gains by investors. So all these in my opinion are currently going on which has to supplement the NBD strategies,” opines Murali.

While taking a dig at past political bosses for not helping the industry, Murali feels that the current political leadership has kept the industry on the right track. “To Make in India, we need to invent in India,” he stresses.

Conclusion

There may not have been a better time than this to launch NBDS. Recently, to promote the culture of entrepreneurship the government has announced a slew of incentives including a Rs 10,000-crore corpus for innovation-driven enterprises, a three-year break from paying income tax on profits, a Rs 500-crore per year credit guarantee mechanism, and exemption from capital gains tax for start-ups. Initiatives mentioned in NBDS, coupled with incentives by the government are surely going to boost the morale of biotech companies, specially small and medium sized ones. Since the Indian biotech industry has shown patience for decades before it received the much needed push by the government, we as a beneficiary of their services should also give them enough time to rearrange themselves.

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