The ‘Startup Factor’ is key to expansion of bioscience sector!

There is no other way to enhance the chances of a big Indian bioscience hub but create an enabling environment for the novel innovative idea driven startups to turn into profitable enterprises. Let’s analyze the hot and dull ingredients of the current startup ecosystem

Apart from the encouraging vibes, the latest statistics too tell us that Indian business ecosystem is bubbling with the new era of startups. Particularly, the bioscience sector has witnessed a constant dynamic situation with one latest report even putting the numbers at 1022 startups during the last few years only.  The report, “India’s Biotech Start-Ups Ecosystem” by the Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises (ABLE) says that Rs 18,700 crore investments happened in just five years from 2012 to 2016.
“There have been remarkable changes in the confidence levels of startups. The new age entrepreneurs are visibly smarter than their predecessors. Perhaps the environment is friendlier now. The government policies are encouraging with more investors turning towards the sector,” said a Delhi based Consultant of the Angel Network that has funded few startups in the space.
If the home-grown praise isn’t enough, let’s read the words of Mr Yigal Erlich, Founder of Israel’s Yozma Group and the man behind startup movement in his country. “The world changed after India gave it the zero (0). India is known for its contribution to invention and innovation. There is a lot that Israel and India can learn from each other. After overseeing an entrepreneurial and innovation revolution in Israel, I am glad to be able to share our learning and interact with budding entrepreneurs and innovators of India. India is poised to become a major biotechnology hub in the world and sustained support is crucial,” he had mentioned during his visit to India last year.

And the best startup city is………

The ABLE’s report puts Bangalore as the biotech start-up capital of India hosting 190 of the 1022 biotech start-ups formed in the last five years. At the same time, the National Capital Region (NCR) ranks second with 164 startups followed closely by Mumbai (163) and Hyderabad (160). So are the dynamics witnessing change.
If we look at the comfort levels, the Bengaluru seems to be the first choice of most of the young. The city’s entrepreneur friendly environment has attracted them to begin operations. May be the climate is a factor too. Hyderabad which hosts the Genome Valley is another favorite spot down south. However, it hasn’t attracted the startup crowd as much as Bengaluru.
Delhi being the national capital should have been the ideal choice. The metro link to Gurgaon and Noida where most of the IT companies are based, could have hosted incubators but this hasn’t really been possible until now. The Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi has been the birthplace for many bioscience startups because of the presence of FITT.
Last but not the least, India’s economic capital, Mumbai is also fast emerging as a choice due to its reputation. Only concerns in the city have been the expenses and lack of enough incubation spaces.
The presence of research institutes and especially the ones that promote startup culture, are also a reason behind the rise of new age entrepreneurs who mostly draw strength from the alma maters.

Yet why are we a sleeping giant?

A look at the Israel’s startup culture will make anyone go gaga over the policies of the nation’s concerned authorities. In the last two decades, even the tiny nation such as Cuba boasts having more than 300 biotechnology centers. The country’s western Havana biocluster alone employs 12,000 workers and more than 7,000 scientists and engineers.
Comparatively, we as a nation with billion population have been struggling with enough business ideas. What is holding us back? Are we lagging because of enough support or it is just that we are not ready to take risk?
One factor that has been repeatedly told by our first-generation entrepreneurs is that they faced pressures from bureaucracy at those times who refused to acknowledge that a successful industry could be established. These startups, however few, came up as their founders persisted through struggles and ended up with modern day multi-million enterprises.
While our top experts, ministers and bureaucrats have been praising the biotechnology and other related sectors as big opportunity areas yet we have every right to be skeptical. The praise at home doesn’t have to always be taken at the face value, critics might say.
“We cannot go overboard in our aspirations as it is not just a pipe dream. We must back it up with a good enabling environment and regulatory setup that is fair enough to help us realize our goals,” mentioned a veteran from the industry while hinting towards the pending policy action points.
Indian’s huge biodiversity and traditional knowledge remains unused. The potential has not been explored in the past due to reasons that go beyond normal discourse.

 Ingredients of startup success

♦ Founders are driven by passion and commitment

♦ Commitment to stay the course and stick with a chosen path

♦ Willingness to adjust

♦ Patience and persistence

♦ Willingness to observe, listen and learn

♦ Develop the right mentoring relationships

♦ Domain specific business knowledge

♦ Balance of technical and business knowledge

Need for more agents of change!

None can doubt the sincerity behind foundation of the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) that celebrated its 5th birthday recently. The Public-Sector undertaking is supporting more than 350 companies and 100 young entrepreneurs for innovation, research and product development. While many startups have been receiving continuous support from the organization, there are few who weren’t able to receive funding. The agency’s average allocated budget has been roughly around Rs 200 crore but at the same time, it has over the period, successfully raised money by partnering with international NGOs such as the Wellcome Trust or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF).
If we go by the ABLE’s report, out of the 1022 new start-ups, 104 were formed in 2016; 367 during 2014 and 2015. Another 551 companies were established between the years 2012 and 2014. The activity seems to have accelerated post 2012 which has been the year of formation of the BIRAC.
The biotech startup scenario in India was transformed by one of BIRAC’s flagship scheme called BIG (Biotechnology Ignition Grant). The funding agency says that through its incubation scheme (Bionest), it has supported 15 bioincubation centres across the nation and has created 175,000 sq.ft of incubation space. Within these incubators, around 199 biotech startups are being provided support. In each of the bioincubator, BIRAC has supported a common pool of high end instrumentation that is being used by incubate and other SMEs for R&D. It boats of 50 new products, 30 early stage technologies and 125 IPs.
Further, the Biotechnology Translational research and industry academia partnership has promoted through 3 Biotech clusters, 8 Biotech Parks and 13 Bioincubators. Also, 25 Centers of Excellences have been created as a flexible model of long-term support for highly innovative, basic and translational research to create high quality state-of-the-art facilities for R&D. In addition, over 60 programme support is being implemented to various outstanding research activities across the country.
The reason why we are talking about the BIRAC again and again is much obvious. The support mechanism prior to it wasn’t encouraging for the startups though the schemes such as SBIRI and BIPP had been doing a great job. The numerous entrepreneurs and experts of all hues we have spoken to in last five years, have shared their varied experiences. While there has been off the record criticism here and there, not even one has raised questions on the organization’s need to exist or its mode of funding. Again, majority of the startups founders have appreciated the BIRAC’s presence.
Equally important reason is that there is only a single BIRAC for such an upcoming big sector, pointing towards the reality that the organization is not able to support each one of the startups due to its limitations. We must realize that there are many unseen faces who couldn’t get the funding, may be due to their own mistakes in articulation of what they do or perhaps not fulfilling the criteria. They too deserve the funding if their idea is novel.
Our policymakers have now come up with the programmes such as ‘Make In India’ and ‘Startup India’ to boost the startup ecosystem in India. The Atal Innovation Mission with Rs 500 crore allocation and Rs 1000 crore Self-Employment and Talent Utilization (SETU) is Government of India’s endeavor to promote a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship across sectors.
The broader policy is fine but each one of the sectors within the bioscience sector requires individual attention. Beyond funding, from dairy industry to agriculture; the food industry to marine sector; from medical technology to biopharmaceuticals, only the multi-disciplinary approach to convert the hidden seeds of innovation will work. The robust democratic feedback system, an essence of any continuously successful enterprise, must be incorporated in policy set up as well. Indian startup policymaking too will have to follow the same standards that are expected from the entrepreneurs.