“We expect a sea change in Indian biotech landscape”

Exclusive interaction with Aditya Sharma, Head-Bioprocessing Business, Merck Life Science India

Aditya Sharma is a senior professional and an accomplished business leader with an in-depth knowledge of the Indian Life Sciences Industry. With a strong business acumen and strategic thinking, he has had a diverse career of over two decades in roles with differing complexities and challenges.
In an exclusive interaction, Aditya Sharma, Head-Bioprocessing Business, Merck Life Science India shared his insights on the Indian biotech sector and how his company’s MLab initiative is enabling stakeholders. Do read his interesting views on the impact made by the life science industry during covid-19 pandemic.

BV LogoPlease take us through the idea behind the MLab and its journey so far? 
MLab Collaboration Center in Bangalore completed its five years of successful operations in April this year. The Centre highlights Merck’s world-class technical and application expertise. It is a non-GMP facility, equipped and designed to showcase technologies, recreate manufacturing environments, evaluate, troubleshoot processes and provide hands-on and virtual training. The Bangalore facility was started with a goal to nurture an environment where biopharmaceutical manufacturers could closely collaborate with Merck scientists and engineers in developing new therapies. Customers were able to get first-hand knowledge and experience to optimise their manufacturing processes and make breakthroughs in technologies targeted to solve toughest of health challenges.
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What is the purpose of the MLab Collaboration Center and how is it helping in solving complex problems?
MLab Collaboration Centre in Bengaluru is managed by a team of experts, scientists and engineers with global expertise which helps create a difference to the life science industry in India. Skill development has been one of the major focus areas for Merck. M Lab™ through different training programs to ensure an adequate number of qualified personnel are available to the industry. Centre also acts as a platform to engage with customers to solve challenges in the pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical industry.
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How is the MLab enabling stakeholders in the biopharma & pharma industries?
Managed by an experienced team of engineers and scientists, our M Lab™ Collaboration Centers allows one to explore technical solutions, test applications, assess technologies and optimize your process. It supports customers in their development process. It gives a feel and demo of infrastructure to greenfield projects and startups and emerging biotech accounts. It also provides a hands-on experience to customers through planned and customized training. It is a pilot lab for non-classified trouble shooting and process development trials to customers with digital and advanced tools for remote troubleshooting and demonstration.

“The need of the hour is to further step up the R&D ecosystem in India, which establishes the Indian pharma industry not only in the generics space but also in biologics”

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What are the bottlenecks in strong academia industry collaborations within the biotech sector in India? 
 The development of a country is sometimes measured by how its academia collaborates with the industry. When scientific and technological competencies forge a strong relationship with the society and the academic fraternity, knowledge transfer is seamless and that bodes well for the overall health of a society.
In India, the Industry–Academic collaboration is in nascent stages and gaining importance. However, there are bottlenecks, slowing down the rate of adoption. Academicians focus less about the implications of their research work in the industry and that hinders them from commercializing their work. On the other hand, the industry is less open to the tunnel vision of the research and academic departments and ignores the immense knowledge potential that is available to them. This I think is the biggest bottleneck within the biotech sector. Having said that, we see few academic institutions in India having good inroads in collaborations with the industry and some of the work getting commercialized.
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How do you look at the biotech R&D scenario in India? Are we innovating enough?
Over the last few decades, the Indian pharma industry has strengthened its expertise in manufacturing and supplying quality generic drugs to address the growing need for affordable health care around the world. Both the government and industries in India have an aspirational growth outlook and we see the industry in India focusing on complex Biologics and other emerging novel modalities. According to and E&Y report, India is the third-largest global manufacturer of drugs, but it ranks 14th in terms of value.
The need of the hour is to further step up the R&D ecosystem in India, which establishes the Indian pharma industry not only in the generics space but also in biologics. The Indian Ministry of Science and Technology has created research ecosystems through its biotech parks and incubators. There is a huge potential to establish the country as the global innovation hub of the future. This would need more investments in R&D, collaborations between Industry and academia and funding from the government and private parties.

“IN INdia, the Industry–Academic collaboration is in nascent stages and gaining importance. However, there are bottlenecks, slowing down the rate of adoption”

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How can training and skill development enable professionals in our domestic life sciences industries? 
Collaborative steps between academia and industry can facilitate a better ecosystem in the country. The Indian Ministry of Science and Technology has created research ecosystems through its biotech parks and incubators. These kinds of facilities will enable opportunities to our younger generations to thrive in STEM education and learning cutting edge technologies that are most relevant. We need to invest in research programs to develop vaccines and therapeutics and provide training to leverage biotechnology. We need to spur innovation and entrepreneurship amongst the younger minds and help them develop products to solve real life problems. We need a strong research system that encourages independent thinking, bold ideas and a new generation of scientists and world leaders.
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Your outlook for the innovative biotech and bioprocessing technologies in the next five years? 
We expect a sea change in the biotech landscape in India and globally. Over the past few years, we have seen significant investments and advancements in both traditional and novel modalities. We see a greater number of biosimilars getting approved for use globally. There are many companies working on novel modalities like, Cell & Gene Therapy, ADC (Antibody-drug Conjugates), HP-API (high-potency API), viral vector, and mRNA (Messenger Ribonucleic acid). For COVID vaccines, under development protein sub unit, viral vector, and nucleic acid based vaccines are the top modalities being explored by companies and molecules are at different stages of development.
We also anticipate the manufacturing landscape transforming in the biotech space over the next 5 years. Efforts towards making biosimilars or Mabs more affordable in order to be competitive globally and widen the market opportunity and is in line with the vision Government has for healthcare and pharma Industry. The focus has been on improving the yield of the products, driving down cost of manufacturing, improving efficiency of the products using continuous processing, manufacturing units moving from multi use to single use technologies and many more.
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Your future outlook for Merck Life Sciences India?
At Merck, our goal is to invest in using path breaking technologies to simplify treatment and make it accessible to all those in need, in collaboration with drug manufacturers across the world and scale up to make treatments and therapies available to all.
Our recent acquisitions have enabled us to become of the leading CMO players in mRNA vaccines and Gene therapy, offering an integrated CDMO across the value chain pre-clinical to commercial. In addition, we have also launched new product platforms for gene therapy and have specialized teams, enabling our customers to bring new curative treatments to market.