Nobody quite knows what Homi Jahangir Bhabha had in mind when he hired biologist Obaid Siddiqi in 1962 at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), the hub of India’s nuclear programme. Perhaps he wanted to create a more well-rounded ethos by bringing in biology in an environment of physics and math—a routine practice in good institutions today, but a rarity in India then.
Whatever it was, Siddiqi capitalised on that culture to spin off a new biology centre, the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore—it was a conscious decision to keep it outside the TIFR campus in Mumbai. In 1988, he brought in K. Vijayraghavan, a neuro-geneticist from the California Institute of Technology, to lead NCBS.
In the following 20 years, NCBS has become the most distinctive place for biological sciences in the country. A lot of ‘impactful’ science has come out of here, particularly in developmental biology and protein chemistry.
“I think one view can be that these are accident upon accident upon accident, or these are designs which embed a culture that made this more likely to happen. I think it’s a mix of both,” says Vijayraghavan. “People grasped the opportunity when the accident happened and designed interesting things.”
Having laid the foundation for cellular and molecular biology in India, NCBS is now moving to the next level. It’s at the heart of a bio-cluster that the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) has been setting up in Bangalore and has begun to bring in clinicians and the industry together.
As a first step, an Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, called inStem, was set up in 2009. Besides basic research in stem cells, the institute has taken up applied work in critical areas like cancer and cardiac hypertrophy (stiffening of cardiac muscles and a big problem in India). It promotes team-driven research and chooses problems that cannot be solved by an individual.
“They have found a mechanism to maintain the quality over these years and have been very careful in choosing areas to expand into,” says Chetan Chitnis, research scientist at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Delhi.
So, what is NCBS’ approach? Assemble top quality people and allow them creative freedom, and the rest becomes easy.
To lead inStem, for instance, NCBS and DBT (which funded inStem with Rs. 203 crore), wanted someone who could bridge the gap between research and application, a gaping hole in Indian research. They identified S. Ramaswamy, associate dean of research at Iowa medical school.
A Ph.D in biophysics from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, Ramaswamy had vowed never to come back to India. In 1994, he had applied for jobs at 40 places in India, but “there were few jobs then and they were reserved for those whose mentors were powerful,” he says.
Ramaswamy was all set to join New York University as associate dean of research when he received an email from Vijayraghavan.
“Vijay wrote saying we made a mistake in 1994 in not offering you a job; can we do something now to rectify that,” says Ramaswamy. That seeded a thought in his mind that this place is indeed different and that India is changing. “I thought, ‘He’s head of an institution, he doesn’t need to apologise’.” As they began discussing inStem, the possibilities looked immense. But what clinched the Bangalore position of inStem dean for Ramasawamy was the “positive energy” here.
In his final visit to NYU, he found that everybody was asking how they would be able to retain their faculty and grants given the impending economic hardships. “Whereas the feeling here was exactly the opposite. People said we need to grow, expand, experiment, and do things that no one else has done…. People here were thinking ahead,” says Ramaswamy.
inStem has established collaboration with some of the best researchers around the world. “We are not doing it in the Singapore model—pour in big money to get big names. Our intellectual environment and teams get the global collaborators, from Milan to Kyoto, Montana to Los Angeles. That way our turnaround time gets shortened,” says Vijayaraghavan. For instance, the cardiomyopathy programme here is led by Jim Spudich of Stanford.
Similarly, some of the leading Japanese scientists from Kyoto University, including the famous stem cell technologist Kouichi Hasegawa, are now running labs at inStem.
Another significant collaboration is with Ashok Venkitaraman, director of the MRC Cancer Cell Unit at the University of Cambridge, and one of the world’s leading experts in chemical biology and therapeutics. India doesn’t have this expertise. His lab at NCBS will develop a pipeline of therapeutics—look at molecules, from screening to synthesising, and then test out the possibilities in breast cancer in collaboration with the industry.
Companies like Biocon, Aurigene and Jubilant Life Sciences are already hooked up.
Rockstar researchers everywhere get market-based salaries, but NCBS, bound by Indian pay scales, can’t pay such salaries. So, it has found ways to get around this sticky issue. In some cases, the parent universities pay the salaries, and NCBS provides research grant and infrastructure—for which there is enough money in India now, whereas the West is facing a crunch. Researchers here are raising handsome grants from various national and international bodies. Being part of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), a well-funded agency, allows NCBS to be ambitious.
In other cases, inStem will use endowment money to top-up salaries, provide overseas travel grants, and address other such needs.
In January, it received its first endowment of $1.5 million from The Wadhwani Foundation. Ramaswamy says he is talking to more business houses in India. “My target is to raise Rs. 1,000 crore in endowment in 10 years. I know the first Rs. 100 crore is the hardest.” He believes if in five years, breakthrough research comes out of inStem-style-of-collaboration, he can convince the Indian funding agencies to allow market-based salaries.
To accelerate the process from discovery to innovation, Ramaswamy, with Rs. 48 crore in support from DBT, set up another centre in 2009—the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms (C-CAMP)—to develop tools that could be used by researchers from the industry and from public institutions.
To begin with, it will use the existing facilities on the campus—such as high-end microscopy, gene sequencing, imaging, etc—and make them accessible to others, for a fee. The centre has generated Rs. 1.5 crore in the first year and is on course to gross Rs. 4 crore this fiscal as the number of users reaches 40, including companies like Biocon, Abexome Biosciences, and Chromous Biotech.
C-CAMP will be fully funded by DBT for seven years and after that the support would be partial. “It is evolving; in future it could go in different directions,” says M.K. Bhan, secretary, DBT.
But sceptics question its mixed mandate. What is the business model? Is it a service provider or is it an enabler? Is it willing to lose on monetary terms and gain on impact?
Bhan says C-CAMP’s mandate is “not to become a business place but remain an empowerment place”. It will soon have an incubator where real science-based innovators with risky ideas will be funded, he says. Ramaswamy, who has two potential new molecules from the campus, has already submitted a proposal for an innovation fund of Rs. 10 crore to a new non-profit company approved by the Cabinet in November 2011—Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC).
Those like Suri Venkatachalam, founder-CEO of a drug discovery company Connexios Life Sciences, remain unconvinced. “After all, its DNA is an academic organisation. Does it have the ability to fire people or give performance-based remuneration? We have seen many CSIR labs, which were set up to assist the industry, but turned out to be sunken investments by the government,” he argues.
Ramaswamy says he has “enshrined” all HR innovation, linked to performance and collaboration, in the society document of inStem and memorandum of article of C-Camp.
As these new places come into their own, researchers have begun selecting problems they’d have not touched before. For instance, a joint stab at dementia and depression among the Indian population: Sanjeev Jain of NIMHANS, a clinician who studies depression and has access to a large patient pool, and Sumantra Chattarji, a neuroscientist at NCBS who studies brain disorders, are converging at C-CAMP to use its next-generation sequencing tools and analytical expertise to understand the genetics of depression.
The positive energy is palpable in the 40-acre campus. “Good things happen because of the culture of the place, not because of the head of the institution,” says Vijayraghavan. THE NCBS WAYGet in rockstar scientists
• It got in leading names like S. Ramaswamy (as head of the stem cell institute, inStem), Jim Spudich of Stanford who leads its cardiomyopathy programme, and famous Japanese stem cell technologist Kouichi Hasegawa, among others. Free up funds
• To compensate for its inability to
match market-based salaries, it gives research grant and infrastructure, and will use endowment money from business houses to top-up salaries, overseas travel grants, etc.Connect with industry
• NCBS is at the heart of a biocluster that will bring clinicians and industry together.
• To speed up application of its research, NCBS is developing a pipeline of therapeutics—from screening molecules to synthesising drugs—in collaboration with the industry. Companies like Biocon, Aurigene, Abexome Biosciences, Chromous Biotech and Jubilant Life Sciences are already hooked up.
(This story appears in the 02 March, 2012 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)