India@75: A nation in the making

Maharaj Kishan Bhan Aims For a New Bio Culture

India's biotech messiah is bringing together doctors, researchers and companies to drive innovation in farming and health care

Published: May 4, 2011 06:03:05 AM IST
Updated: Feb 28, 2014 11:53:38 AM IST
Maharaj Kishan Bhan Aims For a New Bio Culture
Image: Madhu Kapparath for Forbes India
THOUGHT LEADER Maharaj Kishan Bhan is passionate about both bio technology and public health

In the dusty industrial area of Udyog Vihar in Gurgaon, the compact chrome-and-glass building that houses the two-year-old Translational Health Science Technology Institute (THSTI) is the scene of quiet action.

At the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Research Centre on the second floor, scientists and doctors are giving the final touches to India’s first community clinical trial (which is conducted directly through doctors and clinics) for a childhood vaccine for rotavirus infection, developed in collaboration with Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech. The infection, which causes diarrhoea, kills at least 100,000 children every year. Some 8,000 children will be part of this late stage trial in Pune, Delhi, and Vellore.

Learning from this will expedite THSTI’s next product, a tuberculosis vaccine, says dean Sudhanshu Vrati.

On the floor right above, at the Paediatric Biology Centre, its head Shinjini Bhatnagar is busy kicking off several public health research projects. Her department is trying to figure out why oral vaccines have poor intake in developing world children. Or, what is the extent of celiac diseases in children in India? The disease results in wheat allergies, and causes stunted growth with several other complications. So, at the Centre for Bio-Design, a stone’s throw away from THSTI, Bhatnagar along with Navin Khanna from the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology and a local company, is developing an inexpensive point-of-care diagnostic kit for celiac disease. This will be supplied to all peripheral hospitals.

These are the initial outcomes of a massive collaborative effort among research institutions, hospitals and companies that the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) is driving in the National Capital Region. Biotech hubs exist in the country, such as in Bangalore and Hyderabad, but the novelty here is that it’s being built ground-up to encourage practising doctors to work with basic researchers, something which even the US bio-clusters have found hard to manage.  

The THSTI is at the heart of this bio-cluster, the brainchild of DBT secretary Maharaj Kishan Bhan. The aim is to drive innovation and create an environment that will take lab research to the market faster.

Half a dozen niche centres have already been set up around THSTI and at least 10 more will come up in the next five years. These centres will also have some degree of autonomy to devise their own programmes. Today they all stand within a 500-metre radius in Gurgaon; in about 18 months the whole set-up will be moved a new 200-acre campus in Faridabad. Besides these, all premier research institutions and universities in the NCR, including AIIMS and Gurgaon district hospital, are signing agreements to share knowledge and expertise.

The THSTI is modelled on the Health-Science-Technology (HST) programme between MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It brings together all research institutions, teaching hospitals and universities in the Boston area to collaborate in solving human health problems. Engineers and scientists take their expertise from the lab to the bedside and bring back learning from the bedside to their benches.

A handful of institutes in Delhi collaborated in life sciences research even before THSTI was set up in 2009, but what makes the cluster different from those “good neighbourhoods”, says Bhan, is that it has common governance to drive functional connectivity between academics, innovation and commercialisation. “A cluster must be larger than the entities, their output should be multiplicative, not just additive,” he says.

Bhan took inspiration from the Banaras Hindu University — the first of its kind in India, set up by Madan Mohan Malviya in 1916. It was part of Malviya’s vision to link up modern developments in science and technology where he often invited persons of outstanding ability from all over the world.

But in the 21st century, Bhan says, India needs “enormous capacity for advance innovation.” Over the next five years DBT plans to spend Rs. 800 crore to Rs. 1,000 crore on it.

What’s at Stake?
The estimated $180 billion global biotech industry can easily trace many of its star performers’ technology to university research.

Biotechnology has thrived in regions where clusters have either evolved naturally as in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and San Francisco-San Diego in California, or have been largely policy-driven as in Biopolis, Singapore and Cambridge, UK.

Maharaj Kishan Bhan Aims For a New Bio Culture
Image: Amit Verma
EAR TO GROUND THSTI's aim is to enable lab research to reach the market faster

By that measure, the $3 billion Indian biotech is a greenhorn. Largely driven by services and contract research, the Indian biotech industry, on its own, is ill-equipped to address India’s health and agri-biotech demands. Besides, large biotech firms are merging with pharma companies as the latter aggressively cuts back on R&D spend. That’s why DBT has embarked on what Bhan calls “a massive experimentation”. He wants to prepare a whole new generation to help develop new drugs, diagnostics and agricultural products for India by 2020.  

The 63-year-old Bhan, a paediatrics specialist-turned-bureaucrat, who became DBT secretary in 2004, may not have known all about innovation when he started as a doctor at AIIMS. But, he says, he began learning as he drove public health programmes from the hospital, which also involved working with an NGO.

His life, he says, extended beyond a physician’s role. Public health was and is close to his heart. He even spent some time in Madurai interviewing 200 rural women when the UNICEF chief asked him to figure out what women felt about food. As chairman of the WHO Task Force on child health research, he was also part of the team that developed the low osmolarity oral rehydration solution which is now used worldwide in the diarrhoeal
control programme.

All that sowed the seeds of DBT’s national biotech policy of 2007 which has bio-cluster as a goal.

Field experience, he says, helped him network globally. That’s coming in handy in bringing partners for the bio-cluster. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a partner with DBT. Bhan has created International Chairs to attract renowned scientists for setting up labs in the cluster and already has two jewels: Neuroscientist Mriganka Sur of MIT and immunologist Rafi Ahmed, director of Emory Vaccine Centre at Emory University.  

It’s a good beginning, but there are challenges ahead.

“This is a complicated initiative. If it works, it could be transformational,” says Kaushik Sunder Rajan, a life science anthropologist at the University of Chicago who studies global political economy of biomedicine with a comparative focus on the US and India.  

Getting in the Right People
Even though Bhan has managed to bring in great talent, he needs to create a system of incentives to retain creative people. How do you get an academic post-doctoral researcher (who needs to ‘own’ a problem and show his contribution in solving it for a viable career) to work on a collaborative project, asks Sunder Rajan.

Bhan is aware of the problem. “We [Indian scientists] are extreme turf people; we are loners,” he says.

Moreover, traditional academicians may not be a good fit; sometimes you need an industry specialist. For example, today if one has to screen a drug for cancer, a sample would have to be sent to the National Institutes of Health in the US. So, the DBT is investing Rs. 150 crore in a Technology Platform centre that will develop critical tools for life sciences.

For that, Bhan is hiring experts on contract; “That would give these professionals a life of their own.” For example, S. Ramaswamy, CEO of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms, a not-for-profit company in Bangalore, is also a professor and dean of a DBT stem cell institute. Brought in on a three-year contract, Ramaswamy is helping the Faridabad cluster set up a similar centre.

This is transforming the human resource policy in the government, though Bhan admits it’s a “nightmare” to seek such transformation. Within two months of Sur’s joining the National Brain Research Centre in Manesar, Haryana (which has an MoU with the cluster), he was sanctioned a grant of $2 million. This, along with the physical infrastructure in place, will now convince many more people to consider a sabbatical or a collaborative programme in India, says Martha Gray of MIT, who heads the HST programme between MIT and Harvard.

Mentorship could pose another hurdle. Unlike other clusters, this one doesn’t have a large university supplying skilled workforce (Boston has Harvard-MIT; California has Berkeley and Stanford). For now, the cluster will pool in people from Delhi institutions like AIIMS and the National Institute of Immunology. Meanwhile, the Regional Centre of Biotechnology (RCB), a UNESCO-DBT institute, is being developed so that over time, it will help fill this gap. RCB runs a PhD programme, so by the time the centres are ready, one full batch of PhD will be ready. A Bill seeking to make RCB a university was sent to the Union Cabinet in March. University status will give RCB flexibility to design courses that suit the market requirement.

To that end, says Shrikumar Surayanarayan, who recently quit as chief executive of the cluster after getting the project off the ground, the cluster is also designed to foster integrated manpower development where people can move between disciplines — academic to experimental to clinical to industry, without losing their affiliation.

Creating a Marketplace
Ideas yield products only if there’s a marketplace for them. But marketplaces need to be created, with a functional network of researchers, managers and investors.

Though no comparative studies have been done to see how the policy-driven clusters in Singapore and the UK have fared, most clusters owe part of their success to one or more anchor biotech companies. Professor Steven Casper at Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences in Claremont, California, who has studied bio-clusters around the world, says at least 22 companies were formed by Genentech managers alone, which contributed to San Francisco’s success as a cluster.

In India, is the industry interested? Certainly. Does it have research depth? Not exactly.

THSTI dean Vrati recalls how his group transferred a vaccine candidate for Japanese Encephalitis to Panacea Biotec more than five years ago but that hasn’t reached the market yet. The scientists’ work wasn’t industry grade, but the company’s technology wasn’t scalable either. “We are much wiser now. At THSTI we are equipped to do end-to-end vaccine research and development; we can now give a much-finished product to the industry,” he says.

At the same time, two DBT funding programmes — Small Business Innovation Research Initiative and Biotechnology Industry Partnership Programme — are working to create a culture of R&D in the industry. More than 800 proposals for product innovation have come from the industry and DBT has funded about 120 of them in 18 months. In 2011, the department allocated Rs. 180 crore; it’ll go up to Rs. 300 crore by 2012.  “When a company like Reliance, which can fund this whole scheme, comes looking for a Rs. 1 crore grant, you begin to realise companies, irrespective of their size, want to be associated with you,” says a DBT adviser. Biocon’s oral insulin research was also funded by DBT. “We not only give money but also technical expertise,” says Bhan, “If Biocon had consulted us on the clinical trial design, the recent failure in meeting primary targets [lowering HbA1c level, a type of blood glucose level] could have been avoided.”  

Bhan’s enthusiasm is infectious. But what happens when his tenure is over? “You have to understand we are building an ecosystem for innovation in this country. This is a 30-year project,” he says. “Before I go I’ll leave a roadmap. In fact, a document for the second phase, with all rules, guidelines and built-in legality, will soon be up for national consultation.”

Mriganka Sur
Maharaj Kishan Bhan Aims For a New Bio CultureMore than 35 years after Mriganka Sur left India as an IIT graduate, the neuroscientist who heads the department of brain and cognitive science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is now making time for the country.

As a visiting professor at the National Brain Research Centre, Sur will help kick off two research clusters: One will use high-resolution imaging technology to study cells and synapses in the living, intact brain; the second will make stem cells from adult skin cells to study neuropsychiatry disorders like autism and schizophrenia.

One of Sur’s recent researches on Rett Syndrome, a small subset of autism, has entered clinical trial at the Children’s Hospital in Boston. He says that he’d “love to do some of this [clinical studies] in India” if support comes by. “Of all the things I could do with my life at this stage,” he says, referring to several old and new initiatives at MIT, “I choose to do this [associate with NBRC] because I think it’s high time I did science with Indians, in India.”
Image: Justin Knight for Forbes India

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(This story appears in the 06 May, 2011 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Scientist

    We have many great research Institutes from CSIR and DBT running from years. How many drugs are in market as a result of research done in India. Nothing will change by opening couple of more institutes. Its wastage of taxpayers money. Better is to overhaul the existing institutes and do something productive.

    on May 6, 2011
  • Observer

    Bangalore has the highest venture capital funding for biotech according to Over 50% of biotech companies in India are based in Bangalore. And yet it doesn't have much in the way of biotech institutes of national importance. This is a typical example of the disconnect between academia and industry that is plaguing India and that which THSTI wants to address. What industry-academia connect are we talking about? If anything, the institutes need to be closer to industry rather than babu-dom. But this being India, the reverse happens. Result being the organic development of an industrial cluster suffers while babus attend conferences all year round in NCR and abroad.

    on May 5, 2011
    • Seema Singh

      Observer: Couple of points: 1) As for new institutes, DBT has (is still work in progress) set up a smaller cluster in Bangalore which is focused on stem cells. There‚€™s a new institute and a tech tool providing non-profit organization which also coordinate with a few centers in Vellore and Hyderabad where DBT is pushing stem cell work. There‚€™s also a brand new institute in genomics and human genetics that DBT has supported in Bangalore. So it‚€™s looking for local expertise to seed centres. 2) As for THSTI, it really needed a big teaching and research hospital like AIIMS. Most hospitals in Bangalore/Hyderabad/Pune are corporate hospitals with little or no research capability or interest. 3) One idea could also be to develop the life sciences (I‚€™m not calling it biotech) capability in NCR as all cities -- Bangalore, Hyderabad and Pune‚€”have their own biotech parks, which don‚€™t quite work like parks. Simply moving companies from outside to the inside, with no addition in the net value, isn‚€™t what a (biotech) cluster is about. Hope this answers some of your questions.

      on May 6, 2011
  • Subah

    After a long time, we are getting to read something that gives hope, esp to young aspiring folks in the country. What is key in this effort is the attention to the 'collaboration' detail that Bhan is giving. Well-meaning people in the govt should encourage him to continue for one more term of five years so that at least a group of institutions in the country learns to deliver cross disciplinary results.

    on May 4, 2011
  • Karttikeya Mangalam

    It is a pleasure to read about herculean efforts of people like Maharaj Kishan Bhan. What he is trying to do is inspiring to even a simple trader like me. We need more bureaucrats like him in our country. But I have a very humble suggestion to make. Here the model with active monitoring will work better if we concentrate on a particular or most common lifestyle disease like diabetes in a particular cluster.

    on May 4, 2011
  • Observer

    Can the Central Government for once think beyond Delhi/NCR? Hyderabad, Bangalore and Pune are the hotbeds of biotechnology in India and yet the Translational Health Science Technology Institute is setup in Gurgaon. What is the thinking behind this except for the fact that the babus and netas doing this want to keep it under their control? Please think beyond Delhi to the rest of the nation.

    on May 4, 2011
    • Seema Singh

      Observer: While I agree with you to some extent that Delhi/NCR is pampered but if you look deep at the level of 'innovation' that Bhan and his team have managed in setting up THSTI and a bunch of other bodies, you'd understand that it required very close supervision from DBT. Eg. The Planning Commission recently approved a biotech council, BIRAC which is expected to get Cabinet approval by June end. It's a panel that will have globally available talent to provide expert advice to the cluster, a problem solver body if you will. As for biotech expertise, I think (I've been in Bangalore for over a decade) the breadth of research talent that NCR offers -- with NII, ICGEB, AIIMS, NRCPB, IIT-D, etc -- outweighs that of Bangalorean's which sure has 182 biotech companies, but they are mostly services and small products driven.

      on May 5, 2011
      • Observer

        Close supervision in this age of internet, videoconferencing and so on does not mean being geographically constrained. The central government needs to think beyond the Japanese model of focussing everything in one city (Tokyo - in case of Japan. NCR in case of India) and be more like the US where multiple cities have unique areas of expertise which have grown organically over time and which has been nurtured. Eg: Silicon Valley, energy industries in Texas, commodity exchange in Chicago and so on. India is too vast to focus and pamper one city alone. Bangalore has ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY TWO COMPANIES ALREADY! Instead of nurturing this and scaling it up, the government wants to setup a greenfield biotech cluster in Faridabad - a town known for old economy industries more than biotech. This initiative will lose steam simply because its trying to force-fit an high tech field in an area not known for it instead of setting it up in places where the field has grown organically over time. Why is the government not making efforts to setup institutes in Bangalore or Hyderabad?

        on May 5, 2011