Special: “Bio-entrepreneurs must learn to do the market assessment before taking up any idea”

Mentioned Dr Renu Swarup, Managing Director, Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) which has been widely acclaimed for its efforts to create a vibrant start-up ecosystem in the bioscience sector

During her close to 34 years of service, Dr Renu Swarup has spearheaded many initiatives, projects and programs on variety of topics at the DBT. She played a key role in getting BIRAC created and making it operational.
As a follow up on its various initiatives during last last one year, we spoke exclusively to Dr Renu Swarup, MD, BIRAC for her valuable insights into the latest happenings at the organization. Do read the excerpts from her conversation with Rahul Koul, Chief Editor, BioVoice News.

BV_icon_finalDuring the Foundation Day event, you talked about the cross pollination of ideas in entrepreneur ecosystem. Can you elaborate please?

Cross pollination of ideas is at every level in what we do at the BIRAC. What I intended to convey was that we require diverse ideas from diverse set of persons.  These also come from people from interdisciplinary areas who come together. Now we see many new entrepreneurs who are engineers and are working along with biologists on many projects.

The other is when you are looking at the academia industry relationship. When you put them together; there is emergence of new hybrid model of innovation. Both of them have different strengths. The academia has sound basic knowledge of basics and the industry has the understanding of product phases its validation. So, wherever these partnerships have come forward, they have done seemingly well.

BV_icon_final How do you look at the changing scenario in the biotech startup ecosystem?

The ecosystem is growing very fast. We see more startups coming up and also it is good to see that the manufacturing facilities we helped have also started functioning now. Many small steps at home and unique collaborations at international level have slowly picked up and leading to the change.

One interesting thing is that now we are asking all our incubation centres to increase their mentorship and business mentoring programme.  We have 15 incubators currently and we are hoping that in next 4-5 years, we take the number to 50. Going from what the DBT has announced as a policy document, BIRAC is a partner to implement that. Our action plan is to have 4,000 startups in next 4-5 years. While we are nearly touching 500 currently, we are aiming at least minimum 2,000 by 2020.  This figure refers to both the types of startups, ones that get our direct funding as well as the indirect funds. The indirect ones may not get direct grants from us but they are getting incubated at the incubation centres supported by us.

“Our action plan is to have 4,000 startups in next 4-5 years. While we are nearly touching 500 currently, we are aiming at least minimum 2,000 by 2020.  This figure refers to both the types of startups, ones that get our direct funding as well as the indirect funds.”

BV_icon_final Lot many fresh entrepreneurs with diverse backgrounds must be applying for the grants. Are there any new experiences that you would like to share with us?

As we are growing the competition is getting tougher and tougher. We are witnessing that the quality of projects is getting better and the small kitty of funds is getting larger. I think the entrepreneurs will have to be very careful in what they choose to become. It is important for them to choose the novel ideas. These should be novel in the sense that we are not only looking at the breakthrough innovations or absolutely new globally but those ones which are addressing the issues in India. Currently, we only fund the novel India specific innovations with a global appeal. Wherever we have seen that the bio-entrepreneurs have done market assessment, they do well. Therefore, I advise them to do a proper assessment before they take up any idea.

BV_icon_final How much of the ideas presented to the BIRAC are really junkable? Do you find all of them innovative?

The current success ratio is merely 15-17%. But that doesn’t mean that the rest 83 to 85% of ideas are to be junked. We have limited funds in our kitty and thus we have to take only the best. But we do advise them to come back. We have lot of re submissions in our calls. Sometimes they might not fit in a specific call for grant; they might fit into another call.

The quality of projects is definitely getting better. I won’t say that that they are totally out of box ideas but yes mostly innovative solutions for India.

BV_icon_final How much funds have been allocated to the BIRAC’s budget? Has there been any hike this year?

The overall budget has been roughly about Rs 200 crore in last two years. Out of that, Rs 100 crore came directly from the DBT and the rest of amount was mobilized through international partners such as Wellcome Trust, Bill & Mellinda Gates Foundation and many others. We also partnered with Department of Electronics (DeitY), Government of India.

Happy to inform you that BIRAC is witnessing increase in its budget allocation by nearly about 15-17% which is fairly good. We are also shortly launching the equity fund that was announced last year. The delay had been due to the funding issues. But now we are hopeful that we would be able to announce it in the first half of the year itself.

BV_icon_final What has been the progress on the project being spearheaded in partnership with the Department of Electronics?

We have finalised the 14 awardees in February this year and are working closely with the DeitY on various possibilities. We might announce a challenge or a problem area for the researchers to get the funding support. Also, we might consider a program on agri-electronics which is very interesting. It will help in precision farming given the fact that government interest is majorly on agriculture. It will also help us to connect the soil health card scheme that the Prime Minister’s pet project. We are looking at developing diagnostic systems for the soil health. At the moment we are in talks with DIETY but in the longer run for the large scale demonstration projects, we might speak to the agriculture ministry as well.

“The current success ratio is merely 15-17%. But that doesn’t mean that the rest 83 to 85% of ideas are to be junked. We have limited funds in our kitty and thus we have to take only the best. But we do advise them to come back.”

BV_icon_final There have been many announcements on the international partnerships at the BIRAC Foundation Day. Can you please tell us about their importance?

Australia has got great strengths in horticulture research. Therefore, BIRAC has tied up with Hort Innovation, Australia in which we have found the perfect ally to conduct cutting-edge research in the area of horticulture. This strategic partnership of close to 6 million AUD will undoubtedly promote the development of cost effective practices for crop harvesting.

Partnership with the Nesta from United Kingdom is one of the biggest. Launched in November 2014, the Longitude Prize is a five-year challenge with a 10 million pounds prize fund. It aims to conserve antibiotics for future generations, revolutionizing global healthcare. We have together launched the Longitude Prize Discovery Awards. These are small seed grants to help individuals or teams to further develop their ideas to win the prize.

DBT has been having one of the long standing partnerships with the Tekes, Finland. Tekes has been very strong on academia-industry partnerships. Through this collaboration, we want to give our entrepreneurs an access to their market. Network sharing platform will add value.

BV_icon_final What is the status of the university cluster programme that was launched few years back?

The selected grantees are doing their research. I think it will take us a while to let you know whether the research has moved toward the outcome. If that is really translated into the entrepreneurship, the next step will be decided later. We are waiting for another year or so to pick up. If it picks up well, we can go ahead or else it will be learning experience to do something different. Like in case of incubators, we learnt what the gaps, strengths or challenges. We will arrive at the assessment shortly.

BV_icon_finalWhat are the criteria for the workshops being undertaken by the BIRAC at various levels?

The workshops we two are of two sets: One covers the regulatory aspects of biopharma, medical technology and other verticals. It doesn’t talk about the issues or hurdles but the regulatory need. If you have to generate data that is compliant to regulatory needs, we give the understanding about the procedure. The other kinds of workshops we do are hands on experience on technologies. These are need based and after we receive the feedback from the industry. For example, if they seek understanding on industrial processing, recombinant proteins, and certain cell line cultures etc., we then talk to academic institutes and facilitate that. We are in talks with many organizations to explore the chances of starting a teaching programme for technicians for operating various machines. Possibly this year we might do a workshop on this. It is about skilling and making people aware about new cutting edge technologies.

BV_icon_finalIs BIRAC doing something for women entrepreneurs in India?

We have a whole biotech park for women in Chennai. Totally for women, there are already plenty of them in the park.  It has been supported by the incubation park there along with M S Swaminathan Foundation. While it was originally supported by DBT as Business Park, now we have supported it as the women entrepreneur incubator. It will have all the components of a regular incubation space.

BV_icon_final How do you look at the challenges faced by the entrepreneurs? Do the challenges at BIRAC look similar?

The sustainability of their ideas is a major one and if we can help them to choose their idea and take it forward, Second challenge is the access to funding. While we are making all our efforts, government can go only this far. We are using various funding mechanisms. Some of them face the issues from current regulatory system that takes their product gestation period beyond their expectations. That makes their product expensive and thus is not so good. Access to the market is also a big challenge. We need to help them understand where the market is and how do they approach it. We are taking steps towards that.

As far as BIRAC is concerned, there are huge challenges before it. BIRAC again is itself a startup and sustainability is even an issue for it. It has to make sure that that it doesn’t get complacent with its processes. There are key factors that contribute to BIRAC’s success and we have to ensure it continues its emphasis on them. It has to stay in its dynamic mode and sync with demands of ecosystem. We will have to keep changing and that is a challenge.