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View from India: Harness biotechnology for society’s betterment

Karnataka is India’s biotechnology capital and plans to be a key player in the sector’s growth.

The state contributes to one third of India’s biotech economy and aims to garner a 50 per cent market share of the national biotech economy target of $100bn by 2025. The Government of Karnataka (GoK) is one of the country’s major proponents of science and technology. With proper investments in biotech and by building a talent pool, GoK can fulfil its target towards the national biotech economy.

Karnataka already has over 35 biotech research institutes at the state and central level. Initiatives like the upcoming Bio-industry cluster at Bengaluru Helix Biotech Park at Electronics City as well as state-of-the-art Bio-incubators in various parts of the state are other efforts towards strengthening the biotech ecosystem.

When we look at the future of biotechnology, we first need to step back in time to see how it has evolved in Karnataka. Around two decades ago, not many people had the bandwidth to understand the potential of biotechnology and what it could further offer upon converging with computational science. The Vision Group on Biotechnology, an advisory body to the Chief Minister of Karnataka, could foresee the impact of this synergy. It was decided to create a platform to take this forward. The idea has taken shape in the form of the Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology (IBAB) in 2001. It was initiated as a non-profit society by the GoK’s technology ministry, which carries the lengthy name of Department of Electronics, Information Technology, Biotechnology and Science & Technology

IBAB has evolved into a premier institute focusing on genomics and synthetic biology. Innovative, industry-oriented research for human diseases, microbes and plants are among IBAB’s highlights. Over the years, it has achieved several milestones, while supporting the biotechnology academic ecosystem through its new initiatives in biotechnology, bioinformatics and big data. One such offering is the Programme in Big Data Biology, in collaboration with the International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT-B), Bangalore. The post-graduate diploma course is funded by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Government of India.

Out-of-box thinking is required to understand the benefits of biotechnology, delegates to a recent tech summit were told. “The marvels and importance of synthetic biology need to be understood. For instance, mRNA vaccines need to be explored. With this, doctors can leverage synthetic biology instead of the traditional coding approach. It means medical professionals can code mRNA for a particular protein,” said Dr Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, chairperson, Vision Group on Biotechnology, and chairperson & managing director, Biocon Limited. Seen from the pandemic perspective, one can code for the vaccine. And from a business standpoint, this is an opportunity waiting to be tapped.

Pandemic preparedness and awareness is an unexplored arena for start-ups. They can specialise in tools and equipment required for conducting rapid tests. “This will become essential as people with symptoms of cold, fever and fatigue will be tested for a number of virus diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and coronavirus. Antibodies will have to be developed to combat various infectious diseases,” Shaw noted. “All this will help boost the biotech economy.”

In short, biotechnology finds applications in healthcare and next-generation vaccines, which will add to the growth of the bio-pharma sector. Biofuels are another segment awaiting a breakthrough. Innovation knows no bounds, and biotech should be used for making cutting-edge tech solutions for society. To that extent, marine sources can be tapped. Enzyme technology can be harnessed for environmental sustainability. Across India, there are challenges of industrial pollution. Enzyme technology can be used to clean the fluids coming out of these industries. This can prevent the fluids from trickling into the rivers.

“It’s important to use biotechnology for the benefit of humankind. Biotech needs to be utilised for dairy-related benefits as much as petroleum alternatives. Besides research, the supply chain of the biotech ecosystem can unleash jobs. Other options include machines, generators and manufacturing units,” explained Dr CN Aswath Narayan, Deputy Chief Minister of Karnataka, and Minister for IT, BT and S&T, while briefing the press.

These insights were presented at the 23rd Edition of the Bengaluru Tech Summit (BTS 2020). ‘Next is Now’ is the theme of  the event. It is presented by the Department of Electronics, Information Technology, Biotechnology and Science & Technology, Government of Karnataka and STPI – Bengaluru.

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