In the genes: Incubating the stuff of biotech dreams

Last Updated 17 August 2014, 16:52 IST

Banking on solid research output and entrepreneurial insight combined with a discerning talent pool, Bangalore is charting its own course in the growth story of India, cementing its place in a changing global order with a slew of disruptive technologies.

Inspired by the Silicon Valley mythology that modern-day innovation happens in garages out of groups of students freed from the straitjacket of structured thinking, Bangalore has already established its information technology prowess by mentoring  startups with cutting-edge technology and giant IT companies. The city is now trying to leapfrog into the biotechnology realm, replicating its IT journey in association with government research centres and private partners.

The Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms (C-CAMP), an initiative of the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, along with the institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative medicine and National Centre for Biological Sciences, forms the bio-cluster in Bangalore and as a part of its mandate focusses on startups by giving access to high-end infrastructure, expert guidance and cutting-edge technology.

“We are acting as an enabler of bioscience research and entrepreneurship by providing research, development and training in state-of-the-art technology platforms. Besides developing and establishing new high-end technologies within and outside the Bangalore bio-cluster, C-CAMP is an enabler of scientific success by providing technologies and expertise to researchers in academia and industry,” said C-CAMP Chief Executive Officer Prof Ramaswamy.

C-CAMP offers eight high-end technology platforms and training to life science researchers from academia and industry like imaging facilities, flow cytometry, mass spectrometry, protein technology core, high throughput screening, fly facility and intellectual property management and a ‘Technology Transfer Office’.

Considering the vacuum in the academic-industry interface, C-CAMP was envisioned as a major platform for technology, industry-interaction and incubator which will assure the success of scientific entrepreneurial talent. “C-CAMP will allow investigators to use techniques as tools and not be limited by technological barriers while pursuing challenging scientific questions,” Prof Ramaswamy said.

Startup ecosystem

C-CAMP is carving out a niche with its startup ecosystem which has funded 40 companies till date and will incubate 150 more in the next five years. C-CAMP adopts a multi-disciplinary approach, which enables collaboration between lifesciences, engineering and businesses to find solution for day-to-day problems. 

C-CAMP Director and Chief Operating Officer (COO) Dr. Taslimarif Saiyed says, “We still consider ourselves early in terms of activities but, in this short span we have felt that in a way, due to long gestation period, lack of mature ecosystem and need for in-depth knowledge of the filed, Biotech startups are a lot more difficult to launch and run compared to startups in the information technology space.

 Besides access to business mentorship, C-CAMP provides scientific guidance and access to R&D infrastructure. We are excited about innovative start-ups we are involved with and supporting their first phase of long journey.” 

With its focussed mandate to strengthen and empower innovation research capacities, C-CAMP provides an enabling ecosystem for the biotech entrepreneur. “An academic environment allows you to invent the future. What is really notable about C-CAMP is the access it provides to high quality infrastructure, which includes instruments and equipment, uninterrupted power supply and water, laboratory, central lab services, core facilities and conference room services,” says Ramaswamy.

Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) has introduced the Biotechnology Ignition Grant (BIG) scheme, designed to stimulate research discoveries by providing grants for further development and maturation of these discoveries. 

C-CAMP has been chosen as one of three BIG partner organisations by DBT to nurture innovation and inventions which are at an embryonic stage and help them reach proof-of-concept (PoC) levels.

Biotech clusters

The government of India in its 2014-15 budget has proposed to set up three biotech clusters across India. Besides Bangalore, Mohali and Faridabad have got mandates to start biotech clusters with specific focus areas. Mohali will devote itself mainly to agri-biotech research activities and Faridabad will focus on health-related biotech research. 

“Bangalore wants its biotech cluster to be devoted to the entire life sciences sphere, from biology at atomic to ecological level. It should have institutions which can focus on short and long-term research dealing with the range of temporal and spatial areas,” Ramaswamy says.

Bangalore is competing with Hyderabad, Pune and New Delhi in expansion of biotech research and industrialisation. Hyderabad set up Genome Valley, a biotech space years ago. Pune has good laboratories, while Delhi has strong academic and product lineups. Even the physical space for biotech institutions allotted in these cities compares positively with Bangalore.

C-CAMP saw the first graduating batch of six entities from the BIG scheme on June 18 this year. They included Achira Labs, Codon Biosciences, Pandorum Technologies, Sea6 Energy, Vikas Mehra & Team, and Western Range Biopharmaceuticals. These companies gained thorough knowledge on scientific depth and IP strategy, differentiator and competitive advantage, commercialisation prospects, market strategy and business model and funding at C-CAMP.

Along with BIRAC, C-CAMP has funded 40 companies with Rs 50 lakh each at the concept level. “In addition to funding, we make available highly thriving academic environment, high-end lab facilities, mentoring, business angle and IP regulatory help.” Saiyed said.

C-CAMP, the National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS) and the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine (inStem) presently comprise the Bangalore Bio-Cluster. These entities bring together unique individual capabilities and a shared multi-disciplinary approach to creating an interactive bioscience and technology research enterprise.

“Besides having an integrated vision of developing cutting-edge scientific discoveries, the cluster will translate these discoveries into tangible technological development in the broader field of life sciences. We have already given a proposal to the Department of Science on how the cluster should be configured; it is yet to be accepted. We are seeking total investments of Rs 500 crore to leverage our activities further,” Ramaswamy says. Matching technology with skills  

Besides providing platform technologies, C-CAMP imparts technology training programmes to generate a pool of experts who can proficiently utilise high-end scientific technologies available in scientific organisations. 

“We want to focus on the development of new high-end technologies through multi-disciplinary collaborations. Here, a major chunk of the research will be focussed on next-generation sequencing (genomics), protein technology core facility,” Ramaswamy says.

“At C-CAMP, in addition to promotion of entrepreneurship, as many as 200 organisations have come to our campus and used our facility. About 800 to 1,000 scientific studies has been carried out. We are also developing new capabilities fairly in terms of methodologies and high-end equipment.

This is to remain cutting-edge, as otherwise, we will do something someone else has already done,” Saiyed added.

Sailaja Nori, co-founder director — research & development of Sea6 Energy, a startup working on micro-algal biofuels, says that Sea6, which was incubated at IIT Chennai, was shifted to Bangalore upon realising the advantage of C-CAMP. 

“Sea6 Energy has identified the crucial technology elements that will be needed to develop seaweed biomass derived biofuel as a viable replacement for liquid fuel. Along with our network of partners, we are working towards improving the cultivation and conversion technology of seaweed to fuel,” she said.

Solid flow of funding is concern enough for researchers in a country where youngsters are reluctant to come forward to take up research in the pure sciences. Here, C-CAMP is charting its own course with solid support. 

“We want to put in place the infrastructure and then entrepreneurs will come to avail of them. We are looking at funding from external agencies, both private and individual to enhance our research and entrepreneurial support system,” Ramaswamy said.

Astra Zeneca India Foundation came in with an endowment fund of Rs 50 lakh three years ago. In terms of incubation, C-CAMP presently has eight companies under its belt. Innovations nurtured on C-CAMP’s premises include technologies to generate transgenic hydra and planaria, nanotech solutions to prevent chemical toxicity for farmers and technologies to generate transgenic cell-lines.

Researchers have the option of giving their work to companies for licensing or become entrepreneurs themselves. Financial interest has not been lax. Investment bankers like Kotak Mahindra Bank, Venture East Ventures and others have been approached to look at these start-ups and help them further.

Unlike the world of overnight dotcom success, research in the life sciences requires multiple layers of testing and validation which will consume enormous time, money and resources. The C-CAMP experiment could be a foundation stone for bigger things in biotech entrepreneurialism — where research and zest for knowledge will trump risk aversion and profit chasing.

(Published 17 August 2014, 16:52 IST)

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