India is among the first countries to set up a specialised agency for the development of research and human resources in the biotechnology sector. More than three decades later, it is imperative to ask: has the biotechnology sector lived up to its promise? Or was it all faux optimism? More importantly, is the sector poised to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with, if not beat, the IT sector in creating jobs for the future? One needs to go beyond the traditional indicators such as the numbers of institutions formed, students and scientists trained, and the number of patents filed to judge the sector’s performance, and its impact on the economy and society as a whole.
Modern biotechnological research is expensive. It requires a highly trained and skilled workforce and access to expensive instruments. So far, most of the high-quality research output has come from a handful of institutions with better scientific infrastructure. The rest, which forms the bulk of the research publications, is of mediocre quality. This is primarily due to a “publish or perish” culture that incentivises numbers over quality. Over the years, the focus of research has slowly shifted from fundamental to applied research. Why has India not produced another Jagadish Chandra Bose or G.N. Ramachandran despite the biotechnology research budget growing several folds? The fruits of applied research will only come when we start investing in basic research without asking for quick returns. While continuing and increasing the share of funding in basic research, the government should encourage and incentivise the private sector to invest substantially in applied research. Compared to the developed economies (the United States), biotechnology research in India is mainly funded by the public exchequer. Unless the private sector starts supporting applied research and engages with academic institutions, the innovation in applied and translational biotechnology will be minimal.
Let us look at the creation of human resources and jobs in the biotechnology sector. In India, unlike the IT sector, a large pool of the English-speaking workforce, low wages of scientists (compared to the developed economies) and a sizeable institutional research base have not helped create more jobs in biotechnology. There may be several possible reasons. Biotechnology research often requires access to laboratories with high-end scientific infrastructure, the supply of expensive chemicals and reagents with minimum shipping time between the supplier and the user, and a disciplined work culture and documentation practice due to regulatory and intellectual property filing requirement. Additionally, unlike the products and solutions from the IT industry, biotechnology products and solutions often require ethical and regulatory clearance, making the process long, expensive and cumbersome.
As the nature of the work in the biotechnology sector is specialised, most jobs are filled with experienced and skilled scientists leaving the demand for young and inexperienced ones low. In a global marketplace, having a large number of young professionals hungry to work at meagre wage coupled with the need of large corporations in the West to get work done cheaper created some of the large IT companies in India.
However, for the biotechnology industry, the same honour went to China. Unlike India, China has many more labs with the best of scientific infrastructure; each with more number of skilled human resources trained in regimental work culture and trained to practise rigorous documentation. Chinese students and scientists outnumber Indians nearly 5:1 in most American universities in the life sciences/biology-related disciplines.
A booming economy and a higher science budget coupled with a flexible hiring system have made Chinese universities and research labs attract many overseas Chinese scientists. Our government needs to make the process of hiring in our universities and national labs simpler and flexible, not necessarily provide more salary, to attract the bright overseas Indian scientists.
Last, let us look at innovation, entrepreneurship, and technology creation. Unlike the IT sector, the biotechnology sector requires years of experience in the domain, access to labs with sophisticated instruments, sustained and long-term funding to innovate. The government has been supporting biotech entrepreneurs. Initiatives through the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) of the Department of Biotechnology to support the innovation ecosystems have resulted in an impressive outcome. For example, the funding has helped startup companies make nearly 50 biotechnology-related products that are in the market today. Moving beyond this, however, will require a different strategy and understanding of the mature biotech-led innovation and economy ecosystems. Two successful hotbeds for biotech innovation, Boston and Silicon Valley in the U.S., may provide us some clues.
A road map
Along with the availability of funding, infrastructure and skilled workforce, the presence of top-notch research institutions and universities in the vicinity make these two places among the most attractive locations for biotech startup companies anywhere. Unlike the IT and e-commerce space, ideas for biotechnology companies are initiated in scientific research labs while their parent academic institutions work as feeders of intellectual property. Often technology is incubated, refined and tested for years in academic labs before it gets spun out. Therefore, and unlike the IT sector, a sustained innovation and product development model in the biotechnology field without enriching the academic institutions is not possible.
The government is very encouraging and promoting entrepreneurship, but the culture of institutions and scientists to be entrepreneurial will take time. This will require a flexible policy in the institutes to allow scientists incubate startup companies in their labs while retaining their positions. Second, the government should let scientists from research institutions and universities take unpaid leave to join the industry for a fixed period. Similarly, the government should relax rules to appoint researchers from industry in faculty positions with the freedom to teach, participate, and take students. This academia-industry linkage will do the much-required communication and understanding of the problems at both ends. Without a sustained effort in encouraging and promoting science-driven innovation in our academic institutions, and a robust academia-industry collaboration, biotechnology-led innovation will not aid the nation’s economic growth.
The future of biotechnology is bright in India. However, the sector is not going to displace the IT sector anytime soon in employment generation. Discoveries in biotechnology may help us solve some of the pressing societal issues of our time: cleaning our rivers, producing life-saving drugs, feeding our growing population with nutritious food and helping us clean the air we breathe. Therefore, it will be a mistake to look at the biotechnology sector through the lens of employment generation only. The need for the use of artificial intelligence-based tools and applications of big data in biology will leverage India’s strength in IT and move biotech innovations faster to the marketplace. Till then, India needs to do things patiently and work on the right side of the ethical and regulatory boundaries.
Binay Panda is at Ganit Labs, Bengaluru