Special Feature

doi:10.1038/nindia.2018.55 Published online 30 April 2018

Biotech nation: Support for innovators heralds a new India

The country is uniquely poised to deliver effective and affordable solutions

[Nature India Special Issue: Grand Challenges]

Renu Swarup

A pavilion at the ‘Make in India’ week in Mumbai.
© Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images
Innovation is key to solving many problems faced by communities, soci­eties, nations or humanity as a whole. Nurturing innovation requires special attention to maximize benefits for those with the greatest need.

An innovation ecosystem models the economic dynamics of the complex relationships between entities, which in this case are the material resources and humans whose goal is to enable technology development and innovation.

Innovation is believed to be the fun­damental source of significant wealth generation within an economy. An innovation ecosystem is thriving and healthy when the resources invested in the knowledge economy (either through private, government, or direct business investment) are replenished by innovation induced profit increases in the commercial economy. The interdependence of innovation and entrepreneurship is therefore a clear one.

India is undergoing a revolution in the area of innovation, whether it is in the areas of science, technology or others. The emphasis of Make in India, Stand Up India, and Startup India launched by the government is on creating a conducive environment for home-grown innovation and entrepre­neurship to solve some of the biggest challenges that India faces.

A penchant for frugality, combined with public and private support for entrepreneurship and innovation, mean that India is uniquely poised to deliver effectve and affordable solu­tions in areas of medicine, healthcare, agriculture, energy, industry and others.

In science and technology, this thrust for innovation and entrepre­neurship has been possible because of the systematic and unflagging support of the government. Since indepen­dence, until the 1980s, India had built a substantial scientific infrastructure through public funding and some pri­vate funding. By the early 1980s, India had a fledgling biotechnology sector with a few biotechnology focused com­panies that manufactured vaccines, enzymes and other biotechnology products intended primarily for the domestic market.

It was during this time that the true growth potential of the biotechnology sector was realized by science pol­icy-makers and the government, to deliver valuable and affordable solu­tions to some of India’s challenges. This spurred public investments first in academia for basic research which has now expanded to include translational research and devel­opment and the entire innovation ecosystem.

Systematic government support for the biotechnology sector began in the 1980s with the National Biotechnol­ogy Board (NBTB) and followed by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) in 1986.

Biotechnology today well poised, because of the excellent base created by DBT in the last 30 years. There are more than 500 laboratories to 16 autonomous institutes each strate­gically positioned to contribute to a special high-risk area of research. They are part of a focus on creating the translation ecosystem through bio-clusters and connecting with industry, startups and entrepreneurs through BIRAC. It is because of this that India is today a preferred partner for all international collaborations in biotechnology, which we cur­rently have with more than 80 countries.

“India enjoys a penchant for frugality, and support for innovation."

Biotechnology’s role is crucial for the Indian knowledge economy to grow. Establishing and growing an innovation product driven biotech industry was a significant need in India which led to creation of BIRAC by the Govern­ment of India. Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) is a not-for-profit public sector enterprise, set up by the Department of Bio­technology (DBT) as an interface agency to strengthen and empower emerging biotech to undertake strategic research and innovation, addressing nationally relevant prod­uct development needs. BIRAC is a new industry-academia interface and implements its mandate through a wide range of initiatives, be it pro­viding access to risk capital through targeted funding, technology transfer, IP management and handholding schemes that help bring innovation excellence to the biotech firms and make them globally competitive. In its four years of existence, BIRAC has initiated several schemes, networks and platforms that help to bridge gaps in the industry-academia inno­vation research and facilitate novel, high-quality affordable product development. BIRAC has also initiated partnerships with several national and global partners.

In recent years BIRAC has had very positive impact on the whole ecosys­tem for startups and entrepreneurs, and the industry academia interface has greatly benefitted. We have more than 1,000 startups and 500 industries engaged in the network. The ecosys­tem has been empowered by creating over 30 bio-incubator centers with 300,000 sq.ft of incubation space. More than 1000 products or technol­ogies have been developed, many of which are in the market, and more than 150 new IP’s have been filed. The focus is also on skill development, training, employment and market access.

An important part of encouraging entrepreneurship is assuming the business risk that a young business developing an innovative scientific idea faces specially in its nascent stages. As products move along the value chain, only the level of their risk changes. Therefore, funding bodies such as BIRAC need to create sup­port through the market value-chain to ensure that ideas don’t fail for the want of support. Government funding has also plugged several holes where venture capitalists and angel inves­tors were typically unwilling to invest before, such as early-stage research, during which private investors were more wary. India is moving towards high-risk funding, encouraging for many scientists to take up research on disruptive technologies.

Our recent focus on retaining and attracting scientists with high-level experience and our recent investments in high-tech infrastructure gives us the confidence to support disruptive technologies.

Biotechnology is an intrinsic com­ponent of the 21st century knowledge economy. The Indian government has set an ambitious target of US$ 100 billion for the biotechnology indus­try by 2025. DBT along with BIRAC is committed to work alongside all partners in the endeavor to create an innovation driven biotech ecosystem and amplify the growth of Indian bio­technology.

The vibrant ecosystem we see today gives us the confidence that our innovators will be recognized globally for providing solutions for addressing major societal problems.

The recent government impetus on 'Make in India' and 'Startup India' have given a major boost to this sector, and the biotechnology industry will con­tribute immensely to the enhanced GDP and employment opportunities.

The industry is poised to leverage its strength and capacity to bring in trans­formational change and the making of a new India by 2022.

Renu Swarup is the Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, India. She was BIRAC’s managing director when she authored this article.