Science-based entrepreneurs are just starting-up

Science-based entrepreneurs are just starting-up

Thalappil Pradeep from IIT-Madras is on his second start-up: InnoDI Water Technologies. Based on a desalination technology, the company is addressing the problem of purifying drinking water in the coastal belt. Its product uses a simple and inexpensive cellulose-derived and stacked carbon fibre network to treat brackish water of up to 2500 ppm TDS (total dissolved solids) and make it potable.

Over the next six months, the company will be installing units across India to deliver drinking water at a cost of 6–12 paise per litre, depending on the volume. Pradeep's first company - InnoNano Research  - also focused on water purification, using nanocomposite materials that filter out arsenic from water. Over 900 of these water filter units have been installed in India.

In what is considered a first in India, the company received funding of about Rs 116 crore from the US-based energy and water investment firm NanoHoldings to expand its operations in North America, Africa and Asia. Pradeep represents a growing trend for Indian academics to become entrepreneurs, breaking away from traditional academic priorities. "To climb up the ladder and for awards, rewards and recognition in India, one must publish. Technology, industry, etc., are viewed as add-ons," says Pradeep. "I'm glad that I could publish and translate my findings somewhat successfully. More have to take that path."

In Bengaluru, organic chemist Thimmaiah Govindaraju and physicist Meher Prakash at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) have started a medical diagnostic spin-off  - VNIR Biotechnologies. Prakash's prior experience, albeit less successful, with a start-up in Switzerland, helped him to develop a thorough business strategy.

VNIR manufactures near-infrared fluorescence molecular probes for imaging, helping researchers to study Alzheimer's disease, malaria and diabetic kidney failure. "Our diagnostic tool for Alzheimer's can predict the onset of disease years before any other method. And there is no confusion with other types of dementia," says Govindaraju. There are no official figures, but it is estimated that there are close to 500 start-ups in India that have emerged from indigenous science research. Cities like Bengaluru, Pune, Chennai and Hyderabad are at the forefront.

This spate of scientific enterprises is driven by various factors. Like Prakash and Govindaraju, many Indian researchers train abroad in the US and Europe, where they are exposed to the culture of academic spin-outs, which they want to duplicate back home. Moreover, the increasingly affluent Indian middle class is making entrepreneurial careers more acceptable in a largely risk-averse society that sees salaried roles  - such as those in traditional academia  - as 'secure' professions.

Government funding

This ambition for translational research has been backed up by political will, and support from India's departments of biotechnology (DBT) and science and technology (DST), in the form of early-stage funding for science-based start-ups.

The Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), a not-for-profit organisation set up by the DBT, has supported several hundred biotech companies, start-ups and entrepreneurs since its inception in 2012. The DST has established Technical Research Centres with generous grant funding at leading universities, to encourage their faculty members to commercialise their research.

Government-sponsored incubation centres have also played a significant role. Pune-based National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) Venture Centre, set up in 2006, is one of the country's largest incubators for scientific enterprise and hosts around 45 start-ups. The companies at Venture Centre have so far raised over Rs 550 crore through a mixture of winning grants, selling shares and being bought outright.

The Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms (C-CAMP), a DBT initiative and a part of the Bengaluru LifeScience Cluster, focuses on biosciences entrepreneurship and offers grant funding and mentoring to support over 80 start-ups at different stages. Government support has been essential, since Indian start-ups do not yet have a full-fledged start-up ecosystem. There have been very few big buyouts or stock market flotations, which are attractive routes for venture capitalists (VCs) to 'exit' their investments and collect the associated profits. This low exit rate makes VCs cautious about investing in new companies.

Yet Taslimarif Saiyed, chief executive of C-CAMP, says measuring success through exits is not applicable in the Indian context. By other indicators, the sector is quite healthy. The valuation of start-ups at C-CAMP is estimated at around Rs 1,000 crore. Overall, though, the picture is still of a sector in its infancy, struggling to establish itself and with many obstacles to overcome. The challenges in setting up and growing science-based start-ups in India include establishing a robust mechanism for technology transfer, nurturing a mindset of faculty entrepreneurship and establishing research collaborations with publicly funded research institutions.

For example, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) set up CSIR Tech to commercialise technology developed in its labs. Yet, earlier this year, the company wound up its operations despite raising substantial funds. This lack of infrastructure compounds the significant uncertainty entrepreneurs face in dealing with the various organisations necessary to negotiate approval for their activities, terms technology transfer, easy access to instruments and facilities, etc.

While the start-up community in India is growing, Siva Umapathy of IISc says it has not yet reached critical mass and argues that government funding for science start-ups is still too small to make a significant impact. He also suggests that the funding systems sometimes lack rigorous evaluation systems to identify those companies that have a potential for global impact.

Praveen Kumar Vemula, Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, who is part of two start-ups, says that the current efforts are fragmented, with pockets of success dotted around the country. "In the next decade or two, we could see an enormous amount of translational research. We have huge opportunities to grow in this direction."

(The writer is India Representative, Royal Society of Chemistry;
Source: Chemistry World))

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