Building the biotech innovation ecosystem, the BIRAC way

Dr Renu Swarup | Updated on December 21, 2018

It has a network of over 31 bio-incubators across India and supports over 1,000 start-ups

Over the last century, we have witnessed how innovation has driven growth and development across the globe. In India too, government policies over the last four years have helped unleash the country’s innovative potential.

We recognised that scientific strength, matched with entrepreneurship, has the potential to bring out products that can not only transform our country and economy but also shape modern societies.

One of the many policy initiatives to encourage innovation was the Startup India Action Plan. It helped take forward new ideas to stimulate economic growth in diverse sectors, including health.

Playing a critical role here was the Ministry of Science and Technology, whose SATHI or “Science & Technology for Harnessing Innovations” channelised resources into promoting innovation by connecting the various links of a sustainable start-up ecosystem.

Success stories

In the biotechnology sector, Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), a public sector undertaking of the Government’s Department of Biotechnology (DBT), helped create an enabling environment to encourage innovation-driven entrepreneurship and bridge the gap between academia and industry.

With it being centred on the pillars of an ideal innovation ecosystem — funding, mentoring and capacity building, and infrastructure — we have been able to translate ground-breaking scientific research into commercially available products.

Moreover, by supporting projects at each stage of what we call the ‘Innovation Cycle’ — starting from ideation, to testing for proof of concept (POC), to late stage product development, and finally its commercialisation in the marketplace — we are ensuring that proven technologies and innovative models reach a wider population.

Take, for instance, SPARSH or the Social Innovation Programme for Products Affordable & Relevant to Societal Health. It is dedicated to creating innovations that can have a direct impact in the near future.

Some of its products include the ‘Aum Voice Prosthesis’, a $1 medical device that is helping throat cancer survivors regain their voice and ‘Poorti’, a portable, user-centric, post-mastectomy kit that is now being launched in five States.

Further, by aligning with other key flagship programmes such as Swachh Bharat, Ayushman Bharat and Poshan Abhiyaan and government priorities to encourage farmer independence, we are ensuring that flagship schemes are backed by the latest scientific evidence.

It is this kind of support that helped a team from Annamalai University develop an Integrated Farming System (IFS) that lowers a farmer’s dependency on a single crop. The IFS model combines rice, fish and poultry to simultaneously address multiple problems such as low crop yield and poor nutrition of smallholder women farmers in the area.

These success stories are symptomatic of an innovation revolution taking place in the country and bear testament to the collaborative approach taken by the government. In addition to providing the platform and making significant regulatory changes, the Government has been extremely open to working with diverse stakeholders — from individuals to private companies, to globally renowned universities, research institutes and donor organisations.

And the partnerships have borne fruit. Today, in its seventh year of existence, BIRAC has a network of over 31 bio-incubators across India, and supports over 1,000 start-ups and entrepreneurs. It is a matter of pride that over 10 of our indigenously developed diagnostic equipment have been placed in Primary Health Centres across the country, with many more in the pipeline.

In the last four years, policies and initiatives are creating an environment for enterprise to flourish, with science, technology and innovation at its very foundation. The way forward for the country is through innovation-driven entrepreneurship and this, in turn, will help fulfil the aspirations of our youth and find solutions for the challenges faced by our country today.

Piece-by-piece, the biotechnology ecosystem hopes to achieve the dream of establishing a $100-billion Indian biotechnology sector by 2025. And the seeds for this have been sown.

The writer is Secretary, Department of Biotechnology. Views are personal

Published on December 21, 2018

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