Dr Renu Swarup Exclusive: “I am sure BIRAC will scale up its productivity to meet growing expectations”

Watch and read the exclusive FACE TO FACE interaction of Renu Swarup, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology and Chairperson, Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) with the BioVoice's Rahul Koul

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Dr Renu Swarup, the newly appointed Secretary of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Government of India has proven her mettle as a fine administrator and respected bureaucrat during a career that spans close to 29 long years. Dr Swarup’s elevation also makes her the Chairperson of the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) where she had been at the helm of affairs since last six years as its Managing Director, earlier playing a crucial role in its foundation. The BioVoice’s Rahul Koul did an exclusive interaction with Dr Swarup to discuss the bioscience startup ecosystem, BIRAC’s journey so far and much more.

For the detailed interview, watch the video above.  

BIRAC has completed its 6th year recently. Please share the progress report of these years for the benefit of our readers? 

BIRAC has made a significant mark. We held the 6th foundation day on 20th March this year and we have been really able to analyze the impact that it has created. In last six years, our mission focus was on empowering and enabling the eco-system. Now, we are trying to find the ways to sustain this innovation ecosystem.

The number of startups supported by the BIRAC has gone considerably up. Because of the demand for the schemes and also the quality of innovation that is coming in. But more importantly, among the startups which we have already supported, we can actually see them scaling up and getting bigger investments. Many of their enterprises are doing well, many of their products and technologies have actually come closer or already into the market. We have nearly 100 products which have been developed through our funding. Nearly 40 of them are in the market. We are trying to get them to the place where these are most needed with the help of our partners. That is the major impact we have made. We have also looked at the whole incubation ecosystem expanding. We have 30 incubation centres, 300,000 square feet incubation space.

We have also set up partnerships with the regional centres. We have one at IKP, Hyderabad, C-CAMP in Bengaluru and the third one launched at Venture Centre, Pune. These regional centres are looking at creating a pan India space. That has been a major achievement of BIRAC and one major focus this year when we speak of system innovations, was the ACE Fund, which is also known as the funds of funds. While it was launched last year, we have operationalized it this year. We have now selected partners to spread the word across India.

How satisfied are you with the budgetary allocations for the BIRAC? Has it improved over time? Are you looking for the better allocations in coming days?

We never get satisfied with the budgetary allocations as the aspirations of expanding the programs keeps increasing (Smiles……). We have been consistently getting increased allocation with each year, coming from the finance ministry to DBT and then BIRAC. But yes, the potential for expansion is huge yet at the same time, I think the growth of this ecosystem will sustain only if we are not dependent only on government funding. That is what we have been trying to do.

Government funds are being seen as a catalyst with which we can actually mobilize other partnerships. One of our most important partnerships, that is with the Gates Foundation is doing extremely well. In the beginning, we have announced many new innovation challenges. Now each year, we are putting 2-3 new challenges. This foundation day, we announced global antimicrobial resistance call.  We have an idea on the challenge on the vaccine, we are proposing a MedTech challenge. We have Wellcome Trust onboard. We are also looking at global companies such as Perkin Elmer which is already in and Johnson & Johnson with whom talks are on. It is not about the money or direct resources but also if they can through the partnership, provide access to their ecosystem and space. We are working with various partners including government ministries and agencies such as ICMR and ICAR.

How do you look at the expansion of the organizational structure of BIRAC and increase its reach out capacity?

BIRAC has always been created and positioned in a manner that it would remain a lean organization. We will stay on those founding principles.

BIRAC, as I said, is working with many partners. These partners also work as our outreach partners. The regional centres that I spoke about are really our outreach partners too. The BIG which is the flagship scheme for ignition grant has 6 partners. These partners do the reach out. We are working with National Innovation Foundation, SRISHTI to lookout for the grassroots innovation. We are working with the universities. So, the whole ecosystem we developed has to move to a different level. Now our focus would be to work with the states and rope them in for Make In India and Startup India programs.

Any elusive challenges that BIRAC has faced so far? 

BIRAC itself is a startup (smiles….). BIRAC itself is working out on the ways in which we can streamline the whole process. As you said, we can scale up from being a small organization to one with the pan India presence. Not only pan India but how can we do that globally, so that is a challenge.

The biggest challenge is that while we are creating a big ecosystem when we bring in these entrepreneurs, are we giving them the right advice? When will they sustain themselves? That is our challenge. How can we create the right enablers and the right tools and sustain them? Apart from the finances that come from the government which are important, the enablers or mechanisms, mentorship, connecting to market and investors are currently the biggest challenge for us.

Initially, we support the projects that we actually decide to but later we have to make a decision over supporting the enterprise. And then to make that enterprise investment ready, we look at technology readiness part and also the investment readiness. That is something we are working on. Entrepreneurship is risky but the biotechnology is even riskier.

I am hopeful that BIRAC will be able to continuously fulfil its purpose.

I repeat this question each year. A lot of startups have complained about not getting the funds. How would you address them?

Not getting funds means that the competition is high. And yes, we do agree that the selection criteria is very tough. We have a success rate of 15-20 percent which is still good. There are two reasons for that. One is yes, we have been able to build that interest when a large number of people are applying. It is important for us to have these criteria not because of limited funds but also because we want to be sure that the idea we are supporting continues to grow to become an enterprise. Also, we don’t want to support the entrepreneurs just with a grant and put them on a wrong track if the idea is not workable. Because at some point, they have to realize that this is the idea that they have to put forward to become an entity. So, right at the beginning, we not only look at the scientific merit but also the business potential. Then they get supported.

I think for those entrepreneurs who are not selected, we give a good advise on why their projects didn’t get funded. It is important for them to revisit their ideas and work with mentors and come back. It has happened in the past that many of the startups came back and got the funding in other attempts. It is all about identifying the right idea and take it forward.

How do you look at the journey so far?  What are the expectations from future?

It has been a very satisfying journey. I think we have been catering to the huge demand which has been addressed to a large extent. With the demand, also comes accountability which BIRAC has been maintaining in the best way. But now the BIRAC has to make its process scalable, work with more partners and reach the targets that have been set up. If we did well in first 6 years, the expectations also have grown. I am sure the BIRAC will meet up the expectations and in the next 3-4 years, we will meet those big targets.

For the more detailed version, watch the full interview at the top.