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Nurturing the BioTech Start-Up Ecosystem from First Principles

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Dr Renu Swarup

Dr Renu Swarup 
Managing Director, Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC)

Dr Renu Swarup, Managing Director of the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) explains about the succor her organisation is extending to ensure India’s ascendance on the biotechnology forefront. She talks at length to Priyanka Singh & Kusum Kumari of Elets News Network (ENN)

You have overseen the biotech movement in the country almost from its inception and pioneered many a key initiatives in the building up of the sector. How has been the journey so far? What have had been the key hurdles. Which of them still need due attention?

BIRAC was set up by DBT about 4 years back. Earlier, DBT itself had been promoting healthcare innovation research for the last 30 years. The reason why BIRAC was set up because we felt special impetus was needed on industrial innovation research to assist the start-up ecosystem and biotechnology innovation ecosystem to grow. This is the reason why a separate body was set up to look into that component. Growth of that has been tremendous, data and statistics available in public domain self-speak for themselves.

A couple of years earlier, we were always discussing strengths we have in our academic research institutions that DBT had built so beautifully. However, now we can comfortably say that we have an innovation ecosystem with the start-ups and small companies that can enable movement of research from laboratories to the market and help them take forward.

BIRAC has supported all the sectors of biotechnology, but healthcare occupies more than 60 per cent of the support provided. Within healthcare, 50 per cent goes to medical and diagnostic equipment, which is where the thrust is.

Though we have not been the best communicators of our projects, we are trying to explore this area with the government now getting into communication.

We have seen real changes in the overall scenario in the last couple of years, with more young entrepreneurs coming forward to take up risks, probably because we have an ecosystem that is enabling them to do this. We have incubation centres that provide mentorship and infrastructure to enable networking. We have a lot of hand holding conducted by our mentors. The government itself is committed to the entire project and finances are also available. We are enabling start-ups to connect with investors and people are recognising that India has got such an ecosystem. Most importantly, the gap between academia and industry has started narrowing down, as a lot of these incubators are located within academic institutions, especially IITs. It is easier for students at IITs to move out from academic institutions to the incubators; it is about the level of confidence that comes in.

There are no hurdles for BIRAC as an organisation as such, as BIRAC is looking at the functioning of the biotechnology sector. But, how do you get the ecosystem to grow. I don’t think they are hurdles; I look at them as challenges and it is important for us to find solutions to address these challenges. That is what we have been doing constantly. I don’t think there will ever be any phase when we can say that we have addressed all challenges and now we are on a smooth path. It is such a growing technology and area that having challenges into the system is part of the growing system. Each time we address challenges, a set of 10 new challenges comes before us. That’s part of the growing ecosystem to be at par with all the global units. There are challenges even today with us, such as finding the right investors for our start-ups, finding the right mentors for our start-ups, getting an efficient regulatory system in place, access to the required infrastructure, trying to see how we can help our innovators to move into actual innovation, rather than just looking at technologies that are just B2B type, etc. We look at these as our challenges.

Do you see the innovations being witnessed by BIRAC as ‘real innovation’? Do you think they can be considered innovation only for the Indian market or innovation for the global market?

They are innovations, though we cannot say 100 per cent of them. We do see increase in the number of innovations now. Innovation is what caters to the requirement of your own ecosystem. BIRAC focuses totally on products that are affordable and accessible to the society. Innovation may be a small incremental innovation in terms of technology, process or product. It may have also brought down the cost of the product or made it more accessible in terms of technology through mobile application system. These are innovation for us. Also, let me tell you, such innovation may not stay limited to India itself. For BIRAC, the ultimate destination is not the developed market only. There are a lot of emerging and developing markets where products made in India find place due to similar socioeconomic needs. So, such opportunities do exist for us.

Now, we can comfortably say that we have an innovation ecosystem with the start-ups and small companies that can enable a movement of research from laboratories to the market and help them take forward.

What is the footprint of start-ups nurtured by BIRAC? Could you please share some figures with us?

It’s a huge number. Each time we put out a call, we are flooded with applications. However, I would not take it as any parameter or measurement of success, as it is an online process and anyone can come and apply. I would look at how many successful applicants we really support, as that will portray the level of good quality research coming to us; we have as of now 500 companies that we have supported and nearly 300 young entrepreneurs and young innovators whom we support through an initial grant. We are also looking at 50 innovation fellows who are postgraduate and post doctoral students who are not entrepreneurs and still deciding upon their career paths, but we have given them pre-incubation space in universities and research institutes to set up university research clusters to be used as testing ground. At the end of three years, they decide whether they actually want to set up their enterprise or continue research as a researcher. Through about 15 incubation centres and 1,50,000 sq feet of incubation space, we actually incubate at a given time about 200 incubatees, who obviously directly and indirectly get funded by us. The above scheme covers all the areas of healthcare.

In the context of national focus on themes like ‘Start-up India’ and ‘Make in India’ how do you see the biotechnology innovation ecosystem shaping up in India?

We have put this as one of the agendas in our action plan. If you read the action plan of ‘Start-Up India’ announced on January 16, there is a whole section on biotechnology. We have said we will have 2,000 start-ups in next four to five years. Currently, we have around 500 start-ups, so scaling the number by four to five times is what we are currently looking at. We have also said that the government will now come forward to launch its own equity fund, which shall be treated as a “fund for funds” and would go along with private investors. While at the moment we are only making grants to projects, going forward we will become investors along with private investors, which will become a key factor for risk mitigation. When private organisations realise that the government is actually investing in companies, they would know the government has validated such projects and companies. It’s a kind of authentication of companies. Some of the investors with whom we have discussed with are not so behind the point of the government’s role as just investors, but look forward to validation from government’s end for a particular product and company. These investors feel that with BIRAC-certified technologies, products and companies validated after technology due diligence, they will be confident enough to go ahead and try the market. This will be part of the public-private partnership (PPP) model.

What are your key innovation areas onto which BIRAC is focusing on?

Sectors would obviously remain the same. We cover all the sectors of biotechnology. From the perspective of innovation, as mentioned so far, we have been supporting grants from ignition to pre-commercialisation. However, the next step in the ecosystem would be equity funding and providing seed funds to our own incubators. Therefore, it is all about financing.

Secondly, we have put major thrust and focus on mentoring and skill development. We have BIRAC Regional Innovation Centre in Hyderabad, which focuses on mentoring and skill development. We hope to be able to set up BIRAC Regional Entrepreneurship Centre and other similar organisations. We have been talking to the Ministry of Skill Development for partnering with us to support the projects. If so, fine, else we will try finding other partners.

We are also trying to set up partnerships in the PPP mode as well. Some of our private industries have said they would be happy to come forward and become mentors for knowledge sharing and under the mentor network. Probably, this will strengthen the innovation space.

Key Focus Area
  • Healthcare occupies more than 60 per cent of the support provided by BIRAC.
  • Within healthcare, 50 per cent goes to medical and diagnostic equipment.

 

CHALLENGES
  • Finding the right investors & mentors for start-ups
  • Getting an efficient regulatory system in place,
  • Access to the required infrastructure
  • Helping innovators to move into actual innovation

The domain of biotech and its wider implications on healthcare are largely oblivious to the masses. What DBT is doing in this regard? What communication measures and media campaigns are being undertaken by the DBT to spread awareness about biotechnology innovations, new projects and new medical equipment in the market that can ease access to healthcare?

Though we have not been the best communicators of our projects, we are trying to explore this area with the government now getting into communication. But, we are definitely trying to get more into this. The ‘Make in India’ cell of the biotechnology sector has right now been positioned at BIRAC. With this change, we are trying to bring out regular updates, particularly with regard to what is available for young entrepreneurs in terms of the ecosystem and what comes out from the ecosystem as product for the market. So, we are trying to build a whole communication strategy around it, and we hope in the coming weeks we will be able to come with some new strategies. We are trying to partner with our key communication partners to take this activity ahead. Technology is obviously our forte, but we are trying to combine both technology and communication.

How is BIRAC ensuring that start-ups, investors and entrepreneurs are aware about the regulation regime around biotechnology sector? Looking at the entire debate pertaining to regulations around the pharmaceutical sector, how would BIRAC ensure that regulations are accessible and follows a transparent pattern?

We do have some challenges in our current regulatory system. However, over the last couple of months, you can notice that things are obviously getting much better now. We have more technical competence that is being built into the regulator’s office, which is very important. Transparency part was always there and only some sort of competence building was required. So, that is already being looked into. The bill for the separate regulatory authority is in advance stage right now. We hope to be able to table it as soon as possible, as this will bring drastic changes in the ecosystem. If you look at either our ‘Make in India’ campaign or any other action plan, from the DBT we have been saying, we are committed to bring in a very well-structured and transparent regulatory system that is at par with the global benchmarks. I think this is our real aim. We have achieved some success on this front already, but obviously not completely. I think in the next couple of months you should see changes, as the regulator’s office is currently focusing a lot on skill development and competence building. Additionally, the regulator’s office has been strengthened and given more technical hands now. Obviously, any organisation that gets competent will also deliver the best to its capacity.

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