Challenging innovators to think out of box!

In a bid to create novel innovations having societal value cutting across verticals within the bioscience sector, the challenges are being thrown up towards potential innovators under one of its first kind of mega initiatives in India


New Delhi: The foundations of Indian bioscience startup ecosystem date back to decades ago when few gutsy first generation entrepreneurs decided to sail against the tide and went on to establish today’s well-known companies. At the same time, the startup movement in India in general and the bioscience in particular, has gained pace over the period of last few years.

Even the critics would agree that, comparatively, the availability of funds and government support has increased multifold than what would have been during the older days when there was a lower understanding of the word ‘startup’ among the government officials besides host of other challenges such as lack of enough investors with domain expertise or almost nil infrastructural support.

What makes the innovators more confident today? Will the efforts to create innovations really bear any serious fruits? Where are we headed to? What would be the best place other than Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) to get few answers.

We spoke to Dr Shirshendu Mukherjee, Mission Director, Project Management Unit (PMU) at BIRAC who is confident that Indian startup ecosystem is heading for a positive change. He cites the comparative accounts of how the students a decade back couldn’t even think of founding a startup, forget actually talking and doing it. He links this newly found confidence by the startups to the visibly changed scenario within the funding ecosystem.

“The things have changed the way funding ecosystem used to function ten years ago. The renewed support system to the startups from top government agencies and also the creation of BIRAC led to the boost,” mentions Dr Mukherjee who heads the PMU that was created in 2016 to boost the bioscience startup ecosystem in the country. This unit, housed at BIRAC was created by the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to jointly administer the Grand Challenges India program.

The Grand Challenges approach

Designing a grand challenge requires a mix of knowledge, ground level experience and enough funds, especially when it is aimed to push the innovators to come up with nearly impossible solutions for the major challenges faced by humans.

PMU works closely with strategic partners to identify and support scientific and technological opportunities to ensure that solutions have the highest possible impact, are sustainable and encourage future development of knowledge and innovations networks both in India and abroad. The PMU also manages the Healthy Birth, Growth and Development knowledge integration platform and the Knowledge Integration and Translational Platform that are directly funded by the Gates Foundation, and provides technical and management support to the Wellcome Trust’s Affordable Healthcare in India program. The unit is also supported by USAID.

Talking about the same, Dr Mukherjee says, “GCI spearheads those programs that have a grand challenges approach. Now, what is a grand challenges approach?,” he asks and goes on to reply, “We look at strong unmet needs in various areas of health, sanitation, agriculture and define a challenge around a problem country needs a solution. An innovation that does not have only the scientific impact but social impact added to it. Based on both the criteria, we design the challenge. We have a programme on child and maternal health, another one on agriculture and nutrition. It not only looks at improving productivity but nutritional impact also. We have a program called ‘Reinvent the Toilet’ that looks at various ways of sanitation. Grand Challenges Exploration looks at all the pre-impact programs that target the Grand Challenges.”

“Apart from being involved in managing global programmes, the PMU also takes care of many other important programmes. The program on antimicrobial resistance is set to be launched soon. India has a lot of data but it is yet to be utilized and implemented in a proper way. We are also sunning a Grand Challenges on data. It is most likely that this year we will be running a program on medical technology, informs Dr Mukherjee, “As I said earlier, GCI needs to be delivered as a strong science with social impact. We have partners such as BMGF, Wellcome Trust and USAID who are helping us to spearhead initiatives in a better way.”

Hike in funding justified but handholding more important 

Once selected, the startups generally receive Rs 50 lakh in a typical Grand Challenge Award which is the base amount followed by another round of award money of Rs 10 lakh. The Grand Challenges Program supports with 200,000 dollars which is roughly 2-5 crore in Indian currency. Apart from this, they are also eligible for follow-on funding from other sources that are available.

However, Dr Mukherjee thinks that the basic question is not only how much funds but also the hand holding that is done to startups. Therefore, he says, the PMU is not only involved in the management of funds but also providing hand-holding to innovators and Principal Investigators. “We not only provide funds but how to run and manage them, we bring in the strong expertise from experts for managing, guidelines.

Yet he rules out any criticism over controlling the startups. “It is not about policing but merely the hand-holding to help them take the program to next level. GC mandates building up the capacity from basic science to science that delivers impact,” he says.

The MedTech remains a favourite area for startups 

Dr Mukherjee points out that the medical technology and diagnostics are most attractive to startups as the gestation period is lower. “Within two years, you will know whether medical technology device will fail or work. In eighteen months, you will know whether the diagnostic platform can detect the disease or not. So, that is the reason young innovators choose the area,” he says.

The drug development continues to remain challenging globally as well as in India. It would be way too much to expect the startups to sustain in a brutal environment of quick returns when their fist product itself has a gestation period of ten to fifteen years.  Dr Mukherjee agrees: “For drug discovery, the innovator might develop a tool and license it to somebody but will not be able to work from the identification of the target till the product reaches the clinical stage. That will take ten to twenty years. They have a molecule and then they target the molecule to a compound. That is a lot of gap.”

“There are a lot of companies in Bengaluru, Hyderabad. These groups will not be able to go to the market but build large platforms. That will save a lot of time of the bigger commercial entities. They will be expert in taking the molecule through various high-end studies which the smaller group won’t be able to,” he adds.

Read the Q&A with Dr Shirshendu Mukherjee, Mission Director, PMU, BIRAC where he answers few basic questions on startup ecosystem and also shares some advice for startups looking for funds


How do you view the startup culture in India now and a decade ago? What are the differences or similarities if any?

Earlier no student would have ever thought of founding a startup due to lesser options. Now even the fresh PhDs are confident on building a startup. The funding is available if they have a good innovation and risk-taking capability. And if they validate the proof of concept of their technology in next two years, they get next round of funds from confident investors or government programs.

The culture is changing. There are good regional incubators available and the startups, therefore, don’t have to scout for space and facilities such as instrumentation, laboratories etc. They can focus on their innovation. Our job is to look at good science. But to make the programme workable, they need a 360-degree approach. That is not only good science but it has to be 60-70 percent is strong science but the rest 30-40 percent is a downside of the science I.e, IP issues, regulatory issues etc. You have to understand that along with science there is the need for a business plan, exit strategy, how you want to run your science into business, commercial values etc have to be understood. Now, the funding agencies are so flexible that they help you to bring expertise on the same platform. So, you don’t need to be the regulatory expert, IP expert or business expert or all in one. Funding agencies have consultants for all domains as it has been realized that hand-holding or guidance is must to support innovation culture. The good science has always led to good innovation.

What kind of efforts are you making to reach out to the under confident innovators residing in tier-3 cities?

Initially, we used to do outreach only in four metro cities or sub-cities like Vellore or Pondicherry. But now the thrust of all funding agencies is on Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities. While we don’t expect that we will be able to get too many considerable proposals at initial stage, we still need to build capacity at these places. It must be a strategy of all funding agencies to reach them. The universities in these cities are rich in an academic environment. We need to target such places and handhold these innovators.

What would be your advice to the young startups with little money?

Most of the time they worry about funding which I think is not the bigger challenge but the good idea surely is. The good idea will come from good science. Be it the vaccine development, medical technology devices, the idea has to be out of the box. Ideas which can really provide a solution. The ideas that can understand the ecosystem well, equipment needed, challenges etc. Basically 360-degree approach. If they come to the funding agencies with the above 4-5 ideas, I think they are bound to get success.

What are the do’s and don’t for the startups?

Scientific challenges should be looked at as a whole. Think about the entire problem. When I do the grant writing workshops or clinics, I always tell the applicants that in the younger days, we use to listen to fairly tales. It used to start with ‘once upon a time and used to end with ‘lived happily ever after’. You have to think about your research programs in totality. Write a proposal in totality. Funding is not a problem nor is the space. You have to think through the problem and you are bound to succeed.

There are many who will fail? What is your message for them?

If you fail, then think of another problem. There are examples globally where people failed ten times and succeeded the eleventh time. That’s how things move. The success rate is five to seven percent. Not everybody is bound to succeed. If you think on those lines from the beginning, the success is here.

We have experienced that many startup founders lose heart upon not getting funds?

Never lose heart. Try to understand why you didn’t get the funding. There has to be some problem which self-analysis honestly will clear. The system is transparent. A lot of times, I have seen that innovators take our feedback and return to get funding. When you address the problem of regulatory challenges, IP, you are bound to succeed.

Is there any feedback mechanism system that has been operationalized?

BIRAC has developed a strong feedback system. Every funding agency does that to know whether the funding is going. Incubating centres have the mechanism in place. We have a panel of experts. We are judged on the basis of our monitoring capabilities.

What are the latest and forthcoming initiatives at PMU?

As I said, there are many big challenges that we will be launching very soon. AMR, MedTech, data checking programs along with a couple of other challenges. We look at country-specific needs and how the gaps can be addressed.