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View from India: Biotech start-ups explore uncommon ground

Image credit: Angellodeco | Dreamstime

Biotechnology has a diverse range of applications, and start-ups are seizing opportunities to harness its potential. From health issues to environmental concerns, many problems are being addressed.

To the uninitiated, a bioengineered human cornea may seem far-fetched, but not to Pandorum Technologies. Company co-founders Arun Chandru and Tuhin Bhowmick are making this vision (no pun intended) a reality.

The academic entrepreneurs are perfecting a regenerative treatment for impaired corneas. The startup’s 'Liquid Cornea' is a regenerative approach towards vision restoration, which happens through tissue engineering and scar-less wound healing to help in vision restoration. Bio-inspired hydrogel scaffold and specialised stem cells support the Liquid Cornea formulation. What makes this so compelling is that it is meant to be a minimally invasive application procedure. The idea is to curtail post-operative medication and care.

Founded in 2011 in Bangalore, India, Pandorum builds 3D functional tissues through a combination of cells, gels and cell modulators. Self-assembly, 3D printing and other fabrication methods are used to construct the desired tissue like micro-architecture.

The proprietary technology platform is designed to develop functional human tissues such as bio-engineered cornea and liver intended for medical research and therapeutic applications. Little wonder that Pandorum won the 2016 'BioExcellence Award' in Biopharma and Healthcare sector by the Department of IT-BT and S&T, Government of Karnataka, and Association of Biotech Led Enterprises (ABLE). Pandorum Technologies is supported by the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), Department of Biotechnology, Government of India (GoI).

Protein, a vital intake, comes from various sources including meat. Yet methane - a greenhouse gas emission - has undergone a makeover to morph into alternative sources of protein for the future. It may seem strange, but String Bio's spirited couple Vinod Kumar and wife Ezhil Subbian has made it possible.  

The World Economic Forum projects that by 2050 the dietary requirements of over 10 billion people will have to be met. String Bio has set out on a mission to create robust 'cradle-to-cradle' solutions (e.g. regenerative design) with cleaner ways of living. A methane-based value chain, which is the goal ahead, happens through a combination of technologies. The concept is executed through proprietary platform SIMP, an acronym for String Integrated Methane Platform. It leverages advances in synthetic biology; fermentation technology; chemistry, and process engineering to build a circular value chain.

The Bangalore-based startup, which began in 2012, is already making waves. It has won the Future Food Asia Award and the EnABLE startup awards in the Industrial Biotechnology sector. String Pro, which is the first product offering, is a high-quality protein that addresses the growing worldwide demand for sustainable protein. It is a cost-effective and high-performance protein for the aquaculture market. String is presently scaling its protein production.

It’s strange how the dice of life is cast. At least, that’s how one could describe Mudit Dandwate, a former race car driver. Somewhere along the line, he recognised the need for better preventive care. Once he found his calling, he changed tracks, teamed up with Gaurav Parchani to start Dozee in Bangalore. 

The partners worked towards creating a device that helps with accurate readings of a person's vital signs on a daily basis. The product was prototyped before it was fine-tuned and researched at NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences) in 2016. After clinical validation, the first device was sold in 2019.

Ironically, Covid-19 gave a boost to the deep tech startup. The contactless remote health tracker became integral to Covid patients as it monitored their heart rate and respiration rate, as well as capturing details about sleep, stress and restlessness. Hospitals could convert beds into a step-down intensive care unit (ICU). By doing so, the unit became an intermediate platform of care, functioning between ICUs and the general wards. The health-monitoring technology helps in improving patient outcomes, as well as increasing the ICU through-put. 

Dandwate and Parchani have made their presence known in the healthcare segment with their contactless heart monitor. Their technology and contribution to the healthcare industry have won awards and recognition.

When Srinivas Adepu’s friend met with an accident in 2017, he watched him moving around with a pair of crutches. Clearly, it was an uncomfortable situation to be in. Adepu was then a student of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi. While his friend eventually recovered, the incident lingered in his mind. This led to a conviction that disability should not disrupt the daily lives of people. His line of thinking was supported by Arvind SA and Girish Yadav, also students of IIT Delhi and the trio founded Flexmotiv in 2017.

The aim is to make assistive technology a right for the elderly and physically disabled, as well as changing the manner in which mobility aid capitalisation is perceived. With some amount of brainstorming, the team felt the design of prosthetic legs could be tweaked. The design of prosthetic legs, especially the ones used by runners and mountaineers, was put in a crutch. The design underwent changes four times before it won the approving nod of medical experts, including Dr Rajesh Malhotra, hospitals and NGOs. Pain-free and slip-resistant, the crutches have been designed for all-terrain use, unlike regular ones. The Delhi-based startup launched Flexmo crutches in 2019. Funding support under BIG scheme from the Government of India (GoI) helped commercialise Flexmo's offering.

A group of engineers envisioned the perceived need for screening eye problems among premature babies. The pressing sensitive issue became their goal and they founded Forus Health Pvt Ltd in 2010 in Bangalore. The medical equipment start-up has disrupted the eye imaging market with a 'Retinopathy of Prematurity' (ROP) platform. Christened as 3nethra Neo, it detects if a premature baby shows signs of becoming visually impaired within 45 days of birth.

K. Chandrasekhar, founder-CEO of Forus Health, and his team knew it required skill and expertise to create a device to detect threatening signs to the eyesight. With extensive research, the team conceptualised a mydriatic wide-field digital imaging system used for the photo documentation of ocular diseases that manifest in human eyes. 3nethra Neo is a handheld intelligent device that allows for single-handed operation and captures 120-degree high-resolution images of the posterior and anterior segments of the eye.

Qualified clinicians can operate the device in hospitals, operating rooms and Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU). Small towns are also included in the digital healthcare platform, as remote screening happens through the Internet of Things (IoT). The images screened from remote locations are uploaded electronically using artificial intelligence (AI) platforms hosted on the cloud. Specialists can review critical eye-care data on mobile and web. 

Pesticide sprays emit harmful toxins into the surroundings, but many farmers have little choice but to use them. Another problem is that with time, pests develop resistance to insecticides. In short, pests should be kept away from plants and the sprays shouldn’t pollute the atmosphere. As a scientist, Dr Markandeya Gorantla had understood the complexity of the situation. He discussed this with a few other scientists. Collectively, they decided to do something about it. This led to the formation of ATGC Biotech Private Ltd in 2009 in Hyderabad. With Dr Gorantla as its chairman and managing director, ATGC Biotech’s underlying philosophy is to provide farmers with a clean option for pest management.

The scientists explored various biotechnologies and biotech solutions, along with novel science, to create a sustainable and green alternative to pesticide sprays. The outcome is pheromones or semiochemicals. This can alter the mating behaviour of insect pests, thereby reducing the buildup of the pest community. Pheromones lower the exposure to toxic pesticides for field workers.

Extensive research has made ATGC Biotech a destination for a range of pheromones and pheromone blends for different pest species; integrated pest management solutions; bulk semiochemical synthesis; pheromone intermediates, and specialty chemicals for agricultural use. The large-scale synthesis of pheromones has managed to make the products affordable.  

These startups have uncommon names and have explored unchartered areas. Their websites are young and engaging as well. They’ve carved a niche for themselves by offering problem-solving solutions, targeting particular areas of concern and dealing with them through a combination of science and technology. Convinced with their strategy, venture capitalists and investors have begun to put their money into these enterprises. Many of these startups have been supported by Biotecnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC). Here’s wishing them the very best.

These startups were showcased at 'Global Bio-India 2021: Transforming Lives, Biosciences to Bioeconomy'. Held virtually, the event was organised by the Department of Biotechnology; Ministry of Science & Technology; Government of India and its Public Sector Undertaking, and the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council.

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