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All set to go global

Avestha Gengraine Technologies Pvt. Ltd., Bangalore, which focusses on the theme of agriculture and wellness, has been listed as one of the 20 Indian companies to go global in the next decade. Meet its founder Villoo Morawala-Patell.

AVESTHA GENGRAINE Technologies Pvt. Ltd. has been listed as one of the 20 Indian companies to go global in the next decade. The founder and CEO of this fledgling company is one of the country's leading young woman agricultural scientists, Villoo Morawala-Patell. She was in Chennai recently as a panellist at the Public Forum on `The Legacy of Watson and Crick - 50 Years Later', organised by The Hindu Media Resource Centre for Sustainable Development and the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation.

Research scholars have decided to settle down in the West. What made you return after acquiring a Ph.D.?

Even before I left for Strassburg to pursue a Ph.D. I had decided to return to my native land. There is so much scope here to develop and achieve. Of course, on the flight back home, I wondered whether this was all bravado — I had availed myself of fellowships that had to be repaid, all my savings were spent on my studies — how would I begin life once again! But I knew in the innermost recesses of my heart that I had to make it work and in pursuing my dreams, I would always remember — `No compromises, no corruption. I have to contribute to the country and to the next generation.' But I also had an idea of what I wanted to do. No airy preoccupation with just research. I had to build the bridge between academics and industry. I had to think in terms of converting actual discoveries into products like they do in the West.

What made you decide on Strassburg when there are numerous other places of research in the U.S.?

The Louis Pasteur University of Strassburg is one of the most respected centres of learning in the field of molecular biology. It compares with any Ivy League College in the U.S. I was fortunate to be at this research centre just at the time when the groundbreaking research in transgenics was being done. It was an absolute romance to be working on the Gene NAD-II because this gene forms the very essence of life and energy.

What is the work being done at Avesthagen that has attracted so much attention?

Avesthagen is a company that zeroes in on the theme of `Agriculture and Wellness.' It's about convergence of food-farmer-population. It's about `private genomics' i.e. the body type will decide the food you eat; the food you eat will carry the medicine for good health. The attention is on the body profile. So rather than manufacturing medicines in laboratories, the curative properties will be loaded in the plants grown in the fields. So our company does not only manufacture `Seed for Food', it also provides `Food for Medicine'. We also provide research process outsourcing.

You are originally from Hyderabad. What made you decide on Bangalore to establish your company?

At the time when I decided to set up shop, Hyderabad was not what it is today. As a young, inexperienced woman entrepreneur, I did not feel comfortable with the traditional mindset of the city. Moreover, I found Bangalore to be a city where people respected Intellectual Property Rights and also the fact that my role models such as Narayanamurthy and Premji had made it big in this city starting from scratch, gave me the confidence that I needed most. Bangalore appeared to me to be a truly `entrepreneurial city'.

How do you see the future of the Indian farmer, with the incidence of suicide deaths on the rise?

Corporatise the farmer — that is the only answer. We have to change the `poor Indian farmer' picture and build the `corporate farmer' image. This is where the Government's greatest challenge lies. The Government's limited role of giving the farmer subsidies and buying the produce is not going to change the lot of the farmer. Educate the farmer in competitive business practices, teach him to manage his assets competitively so that plants and seeds become production units, let the latest research in high-yield seed varieties reach him and encourage its use. There is concern that these new seed varieties may supersede the old ones. That is just the wild cry of activists. They cry hoarse on the premise of `junk science'.

There are huge stocks of seeds of the old variety stored by the farmers as well as in seed banks, and these can be tapped if the farmers wish to go back to the old varieties. New hybrids are created constantly in Nature. The bio-environment also learns to accommodate this hybridisation. But when transgenics is performed in laboratories there is much furore.

Do you think that researchers give enough thought to ethics? There is so much controversy generated over gene cloning, of late.

I firmly believe that the ethics of biotechnology must be honoured. We have the technology to interpret the human gene. But this should be used in controlled conditions. This is a powerful technology, which can help the human race in diverse situations.

Cloning of organs is a great boon for those who need transplants, rectifying a defective gene could help avoid diseases like diabetes, or help those who are potential targets for coronary heart disease and Alzheimer's disease. But, there is danger that this technology could be misused, and that could spell doom.

What is the most urgent concern of the present agricultural scientist?

The next generation of policy makers must address themselves to the problem of patenting new varieties of seeds generated by Indian scientists.

Protection of Intellectual Property Rights is important if the Indian scientist is not to be kept out in the cold.

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