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