View from India: Entrepreneurship and collaborations in the biotech industry

The pandemic has brought life sciences to the forefront. Unknown vaccines and lesser-used diagnostic kits have become household names. The challenge lies in going that extra mile post pandemic.

What the pandemic has also done is to try and break the boundaries between academia and startups. “These broken silos are enablers. They can help academia-startups-industry to work together. The industry and apex bodies may well collaborate to create the necessary infrastructure for the country to move forward and position itself as a biotech destination,” said Dr Renu Swarup, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology, addressing the online audience at the CII Life Sciences Conclave 2021.

Biotech startups need an impetus. “India is home to 5,000 startups, so we could probably look at expanding their tribe. Wishfully, some of these startups become unicorns and make it to the global list. All this may perhaps pave the way for biotechnology to grow into a $100bn economy by next year,” felt Dr Swarup.   

Talent, especially techno-scientific talent, is critical for innovation. We need to spawn innovation and open up avenues for fostering their growth. However, when innovation happens, it’s also essential to protect intellectual property (IP) rights within the biotech sector. Protection of IP rights of biotech innovation is one of the hallmarks for India to be a world leader in biotechnology. “Entrepreneurship-startups should be showcased as a career. For this, many students require a change in mindset. The mindset should evolve from the paper to discovery. This can open up partnerships,” said Manni Kantipudi, CEO of Aragen Life Sciences. 

Besides entrepreneurship, collaborations are also required for the industry to move ahead. This is where efforts need to be spruced up. Industry-friendly regulatory measures help in fast-tracking the collaboration. “The single-window clearance policies rolled out by states of Telengana and Karnataka have set an example for other states. A talent pool, backed by hassle-free policies, can help the biotech industry leap frog into the future,” reasoned Saumya Krishnan, partner at Kearney.

All this will reinstate the Make in India vision of the government. So it’s important to strengthen the ecosystem, encourage innovation and leverage the talent pool. “What needs to be done is to train young minds to think independently. They have to be oriented to ask questions and find solutions. Equip them with problem-solving tools such as fundamental science. The basics of fundamental science should be applied for practical applications,” explained Professor K Vijay Raghavan, Principal Scientific Adviser for the Government of India.

The fact that India is home to a young population needs to be leveraged. “The overall global innovation index reflects that we are below the 50 mark. From a population standpoint, 50 per cent of the population is below 25 years of age. Around 8 per cent of the global science graduates are from India but not all of them have the entrepreneurial outlook,” added Raghavendra Goud, GM, South Asia Cytiva.

Ironically, here lies untapped opportunity. Young minds need to be oriented towards entrepreneurial pursuits to help solve societal problems. The horizon could expand to leverage technology for various science-based outcomes. The development of enzymes could be one such example. It would be great if molecular innovation is developed and taken forward and its solutions made available to the masses. “Biotechnology is a sunshine industry. India has produced diagnostic kits and vaccines for the domestic and international market; this indicates that the country has manufacturing capabilities,” observed Dr Manish Diwan, head of Strategic Partnerships and Entrepreneurship Development, Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council. 

Covid has propelled the biotech industry forward; can we create an ecosystem for talent to stay back in India? It’s a litmus test and wishfully it would work well if sufficient opportunities as well as revenue streams open up. The industry and government could partner to nurture startups and students. Centres may spring up across states to moot the initiative.  

The pandemic has brought scientific agencies and the industry together. That’s a good synergy. But whether or not we will work in silos when the pandemic begins to fade away remains to be seen.

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