Indian Bioscience startup ecosystem: The past, present and future?

We are at the crossroads of witnessing the turning of tide within the Indian biosciences startup ecosystem, write Dr Premnath Venugopalan and Meghana Bhandari

About Authors:
♦ Dr Premnath Venugopalan, Head, NCL Innovations, CSIR-National Chemical Laboratory and Founder Director, Venture Center is a technology developer, innovation and incubation manager, startup mentor and a co-founder of 2 medtech startups. He has provided leadership for teams that have won National awards for technology development, intellectual property management and business incubation.  He is chemical engineer and an alumnus of MIT in the US, IIT-Bombay (Distinguished Alumnus, 2022) and has been a Chevening Technology Enterprise Scholar in Cambridge, UK.
♦ Meghana Bhandari, Associate- BIRAC Regional Bioinnovation Center, Venture Center is responsible for planning & co-coordinating activities. She is actively involved in curating the content for all BRBC programs as well as compiling data and creating impact reports and other program verticals at Venture Center. She studied M.Tech in Biomedical engineering from IIT Ropar.

They say, “The best is yet to come!” and quite rightfully so, the Indian biotechnology startup ecosystem is yet to reach its prime, but there is hope and we are swiftly moving in that direction. Just consider some of these numbers shared by Union minister Dr. Jitendra Singh at a recent event: India’s bioeconomy has grown 8X in the last eight years, with more than 5000 biotech startups in the country in 2022, from a mere 52 in 2014. The number of biotech incubators in the country also increased from 6 in 2014 to 75 in 2022. Homegrown biotech startups have churned out more than 700 products and have created over 25,000 high skilled jobs so far.
So how did we make it to this point? The importance of biotechnology in the economic development of the country was recognized way back in the 1980s, and the first milestone in India’s journey into the world of biosciences began around 40 years ago, with the constitution of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) in 1986. During the early years, most of the effort was focused on developing skilled human resources in bioscience, creation of infrastructure, and supporting research and development in the biosciences.
Tracking the growth
Many ecosystem-level developments were happening during the first decade of the new millennium. Biotech parks were being set up, including the Jubilee Women’s Biotech Park in Chennai, focussing on women entrepreneurs. The Association of Biotech Led Enterprises (ABLE) was launched in 2003. The New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative (NMITLI) of the Council of Science & Industrial Research (CSIR) was launched in 2003 to fund innovation projects. The Department of Biotechnology set up the Small Business Innovation Research Initiative (SBIRI) scheme in 2005 to support discovery, proof of concept and early stage validation. With numerous global partnership programs of the Wellcome Trust, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and others, several opportunities for grant funding and guidance from Indian and global mentors opened up, and young engineers, clinicians and researchers could visualize an alternate path to making their entrepreneurial dreams come true.
With the launch of the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) in 2012, there has been no looking back for the Indian biotech startup ecosystem. Pioneered by the DBT, under Dr. M K Bhan’s vision, BIRAC became a vehicle to both leverage government funding to de-risk technology development and also develop the ecosystem with partners. BIRAC’s Biotechnology Ignition Grant (BIG) scheme has proved to be a big boon for over 750 startups and innovators pan India, many of whom have gone on to raise substantial follow-on private capital, or benefitted from schemes such as BIPP, which supports high risk research, POC to validation and pre-commercialization.
With these successes, more and more entrepreneurs are seeing BIG as their go-to funding bucket to get their POC’s in place. This is indicative of the critical role played by BIG in reducing the risk perception of early-stage funding of biotech startups, thereby overcoming the challenge posed by attracting funding from other donors, friends and family, as well as angels and early-stage venture capitals. The success of partnering with biotech incubators for the BIG program has led to deeper engagements with the incubation community. In addition to this,  the Government has also formulated schemes to support late stage startups, in order to help them in scaling up and bringing products to the market.
“BIRAC’s Biotechnology Ignition Grant (BIG) scheme has proved to be a big boon for over 750 startups and innovators pan India.”
In an attempt to help startups emerging from smaller cities, many government agencies have now implemented special programs. For example, BIRAC has launched a special call for the Biotechnology Ignition Grant to promote innovation & entrepreneurship in the North Eastern Region. The Department of Science and Technology (DST) has dedicated NIDHI-EIR fellowships for SC/ST entrepreneurs and has plans to roll out entrepreneurship programs targeted towards Tier2 and Tier3 cities. The Department of Biotechnology (DBT) has created four bio-clusters at Faridabad, Bangalore, Kalyani and Pune for catalyzing research & development and entrepreneurship activities. Atal Incubation Centers is an initiative of the Atal Innovation Mission, NITI Aayog to foster innovation and entrepreneurial spirit while creating a supportive ecosystem for start-ups and entrepreneurs in India. Since 2016, AIM has established 68 Atal Incubation Centers across 18 states and 3 UTs which have supported more than 2700 startups, many of which have a deep biotech focus.
Pandemic learnings
With the COVID pandemic having created the havoc it did in all our lives, and the healthcare industry being at the forefront of it all, even investors of late have realized the hidden potential in healthcare and biotech industries. Young investors, shareholders and venture capitalists have diversified their investment portfolio to include preventive medicine, personalized healthcare, healthcare on demand and automation, behavioral health, wearable medical device and remote healthcare.
On the policy front, the Indian Government is undertaking structural and sustained reforms to strengthen the healthcare sector; as well as has announced conducive policies to liberalize India’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) regime for encouraging FDI. Key segments where new opportunities are likely to emerge for health technology players in the near future include development of tools to facilitate emergency care and improvements to medical infrastructure, through technology-based optimization. Furthermore, expanding the scope of wearable devices to track health conditions, developing patient-facing mobile health applications as well as greater integration of AI, robots, and blockchain technologies are some emerging pipelines for investment in the Indian biotechnology startup ecosystem.
“The biotherapeutics sector in India focuses primarily on high-quality manufacturing.”
The biotherapeutics sector in India focuses primarily on high-quality manufacturing and is increasingly moving towards biosimilars, biobetters and working with innovator companies in scale manufacturing.  While India has a pipeline of several biosimilars, it has so far not made a lot of progress entering high regulated markets. Entering global markets by leveraging the global movements for affordable health care will be a key thrust area for India.
Future outlook
The global push for sustainability and climate action is likely to create very interesting opportunities for the renewable and biosynthetic fuels, chemicals and materials industry. The increasing demand from the global FMCG industry and food and beverage industry will open new opportunities for Indian entrepreneurs in sustainable ingredients.
The agricultural biotechnology sector is going to play a pivotal role in the coming two decades as India and the world braces for the impact of climate change, growing population, war-related uncertainties to food and increasing pressure for dramatic changes to agricultural practices, to keep up with sustainability goals. A few key areas for emerging startups would be farm automation powered by AI/ML and affordable robotics, farm IOT and data analytics, and new gene edited seed and plant varieties.
With corporates getting involved through CSR initiatives and doing their bit to support more and more biotech startups, and the Government working on its bit to catalyze early stage private investments, create strings-free funding pockets and ensure predictable, transparent and bureaucracy free regulations, we are at the crossroads of witnessing the turning of tide within the Indian biosciences startup ecosystem.

*This article was first published in the January 2023 edition of the BioVoice eMagazine. The views expressed by the authors are their own.