“$100 billion target is achievable but requires huge collective effort”

Dr P M Murali, President, Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises believes that it is time for collective efforts to achieve India's biotech dreams. Read his exclusive interview with the BioVoice News for his detailed views on various issues


In an exclusive freewheeling conversation with the BioVoice News, Dr P M Murali, President, Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises, shared his frank views on the target set up for the Indian biotech industry by 2025, current startup ecosystem, issues that are holding us back, way forward and much more. Read the detailed interview below:

BV_icon-150x150What has been your experiences with the BioInvest where you have been a part since its inception eight years ago?

The event has been a connect between the startups, entrepreneurs and the funding agencies as well as investors since its beginning more than eight years ago. The most important point noticed is that earlier we did not have enough grants available that could take the ideas from paper to at least proof of concept stage. Today there is lot of scope for startups to get noticed by potential investors. Besides, the funding agencies too have a wider scope now. The scenario was different even five years ago from what it is now. You see a good number of investors in the room today and the mood is visible different as well. It was a different case then. The halls used to be filled with people yet only lucky few would manage some funds. That’s the difference!

BV_icon-150x150How realistic is the target of $ 100 billion industry by 2020? Is it achievable?

See one of the basic thing is that it is like tying you both hands, legs, closing your eyes and then saying you do it now! When the vision of $100 billion industry was made, we looked at the constraints too and there was a time frame for resolving these constraints. Have we been able to address these issues within a time frame? My answer is no! So, you can blame 100 people for that. You can blame government, policymakers, industry or any stakeholder. But it must be remembered that it requires collective effort if the dream has to be realized. You need to unshackle things that are holding the industry back.

Our country is an agriculture country. Everybody confuses agriculture biotechnology as genetically modified one. There are hundreds of non-GM processes that could be done with the biotechnology. Those need to be supported and managed. There are hundreds of things that can be done through plant breeding, marker assisted selection (MAS) technology etc. Nobody is stopping but the point is stigma, regulatory hassles and lack of investments. The investments are not happening because we have shattered the investor confidence by doing trivial things few times. By the time, you try to woo them again, it is too late. There are few small things we simply haven’t tied up together. It is not just because of one government or the other. It is the sentiment that has now existed for more than a decade. All that the current government can do is to uplift the spirit and elevate the mood in terms of Make in India. However, the basic investor sentiment and all the stakeholders must be taken onboard to work in a sustainable way.

The $100 billion target is not that even so big that India cannot achieve. It is just that the potential we have in shape of our young entrepreneurs, startup ecosystem that needs to be harnessed. But again, that requires the managing of regulatory and investor sentiments that makes that possible. Also, we must not get bogged down by criticism from sidelines. Even the critics too must join mainstream and wok towards achieving the goal. 100 is just the indicative number. You may achieve 99 or you may achieve 101. But staying at 35-40 is something where we will have to blame ourselves.

Students are not lacking dreams, startups are not losing hope but we must give them requisite canvas to play. ABLE can give a vision and government agencies can support but the implantation must be done at the state level. Each state government must have their goals for biotechnology. Be it political bosses, industry, regulators, academia or others, all must play their part and move towards single direction. Otherwise we will be again discussing in 2025 that how to achieve $100 billion industry.

“Be it political bosses, industry, regulators, academia or others, all must play their part and move towards single direction. Otherwise, we will be again discussing in 2025 that how to achieve $100 billion industry.”

BV_icon-150x150How is the global investor sentiment towards Indian biotech market scenario? How should we communicate with them?

I would say that they are still not fully educated about Indian opportunities. They have not seen the country transform into an economic powerhouse. Perhaps they have been the mushrooming of various other sectors, outsourcing, telecom etc but they are still not aware about our role currently as the vaccine leaders. Biosimilars are the other area where we are at the forefront. But we have not succeeded in highlighting our strengths properly.

Hence, I think our global outwards communication must change with more focused approach. Communication strategy explaining the biotech must come up. You can give a generalized call that India is growing but outsiders don’t know whether it is for infrastructure, building roads or the biotech. We need to be specific in our communication.

BV_icon-150x150BRAI bill is still pending in the Parliament and perhaps has elapsed too. Has ABLE raised the issue with government?

We have pushed it as much as we can. With the change in political scenario and a majority government in the Parliament, hopefully, it will see the light of the day. Political will is important. While government must reintroduce the bill, the opposition party too must support. And if I remember correctly, Mr Shashi Tharoor had supported it earlier but with few amendments. We as an industry association have pressed to DBT for making it a reality. I sincerely wish it comes through.

BV_icon-150x150How do you look at the regulatory issues especially in case of clinical trials? Hope can we change the situation?

The global companies had put lot of investments into their CRO work, drug discovery, early stage discovery etc. We completely drove them away with our facts and figures on clinical trial deaths. We knee jerked badly to any episode. Either we didn’t put enough checks and balances or we simply lost the plot.

Today this industry is global. If they didn’t get the environment here, they left for other better destinations. We cold shoulder everybody who wants to come here for investments through our acts. I am not simply blaming government but all of us, the stakeholders. Time has come to pull our efforts in sync with each other to come out of this situation and present India again as a right destination.

“All the new emerging areas can contribute tremendously in overall growth of the biotech sector. It is ultimately what the PM Modi said: ‘The more you do the business, economy develops and so does the sector on its own’ It is self-fueling.”

BV_icon-150x150Many people tell me that while BIRAC has been doing a good job, we require more BIRACs. Do you agree?

While I agree with the philosophy and intentions behind the statement, I feel we require more differentiation in terms of how funding comes. The way academics work is different from industry. Their approach to problem solving varies. So, have to remember that BIRAC fills one big area of hand-holding and helping kick start. But again, the seed funding is missing. Let’s suppose a child is there. We will provide food for 8 years but can he or she sustain after that. No, we have to take care till 18 so that person can fend for himself. While support upto 8 is fine, what will happen till 18. That thought is missing.

The first 2-3 crore are crucial for an entrepreneur. Therefore, we need prudent investment to help scale up. That can come from government or via public private partnerships. The 2nd and 3rd round of funding is important and that is where the valley of death is. Everybody dies if there is no support.

We perhaps don’t require more BIRACs but what we need is BIRAC’s version 2 and 3 for the things which haven’t been covered so far.

BV_icon-150x150Has the scenario on technology transfers from academia to industry improved?

I don’t think it has improved at all. I wish it would change but the fact is that it is still in infancy here. While DBT is putting efforts to get into changing the scenario, the CSIR too must do as well.

BV_icon-150x150What are the top priorities of ABLE in boosting the sector’s potential?

We have been proactive on biosimilars because it has got great future and surely has an edge. Besides that, we are focusing on regulatory framework of stem cells, synthetic biology etc. All the new emerging areas can contribute tremendously in overall growth of the biotech sector. It is ultimately what the PM Modi said. ‘The more you do the business, economy develops and so does the sector on its own’ It is self-fueling. Once we have successful industries to showcase, the template is developed for other success stories to follow.

The startup ecosystem has really picked up. 1022 startups in five years and 1020 expected in another five years is exciting. ABLE is optimistic about the growth of this sector in the coming decade.