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Shrikumar Suryanarayanan teamed up with IIT-Madras youngsters to start Sea6 Energy
Image: Selvaprakash Lakshmanan for Forbes India
This February, Oraxion Therapeutics Inc, a spin-off from Bengaluru’s Aten Porus Lifesciences, announced its agreement with an unnamed US-based biopharmaceutical company under which it would give the American partner exclusive options to license Oraxion’s lead drug ORX-301 for the treatment of two rare diseases called Niemann-Pick Type C disorder, and Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis. Arun B Papaiah and Aditya Kulkarni, founders of Oraxion Therapeutics, told Forbes India that total payments could be as high as $125 million, in addition to royalties and sales milestone payments.
What, however, stood out was their acknowledgement of support from a quarter that is not usually associated with deep science-based entrepreneurial success: “We would also like to acknowledge the support from the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), an initiative of the department of biotechnology (DBT), government of India, for initial grant support for our work,” they wrote in a press release.
Government departments in India are often seen as stodgy, and are not associated readily with innovation. DBT, however, epitomises what a modest start and decades of persistence can achieve.
The department was set up more than 30 years ago, in 1986, and primarily focussed on building capacity in academia across multiple universities and research organisations. It has supported more than 5,000 scientists in over 100 universities and laboratories with research grants, physical infrastructure, funds for equipment and so on, and in the last 10 years, has increasingly engaged with industry.
“We felt that while we were strongly supporting academic research, we also needed to bring in the industry, because only then the picture gets complete,” says Renu Swarup, secretary, DBT. This resulted in the formation of BIRAC in 2007 in partnership with private industry; in 2009, it was converted into a public sector entity.
Through BIRAC and other schemes, the DBT has created a slew of grants—such as the Biotech Ignition Grant—to encourage both research within the industry, and the translation of academic research into commercial ventures. Ventures such as Aten Porus became direct beneficiaries.
The early grants from DBT—₹50 lakh in 2015 under the Biotech Ignition Grant scheme, and ₹50 lakh in 2016 under the small business innovation research initiative—made an important difference in the early stage of the venture which was started in April 2014, recall Papaiah and Kulkarni.
Aten Porus isn’t an outlier either. At Bengaluru-based Sea6 Energy, extracts from “ocean-farmed” seaweed have found applications in boosting the health and growth of food crops. Sea6 is successfully marketing the product, both on its own and via a partnership with the Mahindra Group.
Sea6 was started in July 2010 with the idea of converting seaweed, farmed on the ocean’s surface, into fuel that could be refined into a variety of petroleum products. In the process, the founders—including a group of IIT-Madras engineers—also developed strong intellectual property in automating the process: They have built a highly scalable grid that floats on the ocean surface and on which the seaweed grows (it also acts as a bulwark for solar cells), and a harvester-seeder.
Sea6 is piloting a working prototype in Indonesia, where ocean farming regulations are better developed and the seas are calmer, says Shrikumar Suryanarayanan, a former Biocon veteran, who teamed up with the IIT-Madras youngsters to start the company, which is now located at the DBT-backed Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms, a biotech startup incubator co-located with the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru.
“The infrastructure requirements for IT are far lower than for biotech. In IT you’ll get quicker translation of ideas. In biotech you’re working with physical stuff,” says Suryanarayanan, chairman and managing director of Sea6 Energy. From individual cells to biomedical devices, manipulating them requires “very, very expensive facilities”.
These facilities include laboratories, clean rooms, 3D-printing facilities, cold rooms and of course, powerful computers that can run modelling and simulations. Here is where the DBT was able to step in and create facilities that startups with good ideas could use at low cost. Thus was born, more or less simultaneously with BIRAC, another initiative called C-Camp (Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms), in 2009.
“We actually worked with the government to set out the blueprint for C-Camp,” says Suryanarayanan, who, after quitting his job running the R&D department at Biocon, had become the director-general of the Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises (Able).
There were many new biologics coming into the market, and they required high-end analytical facilities that no single startup could afford to build. Further, India’s drug regulator, Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation, was unable to check the quality of these biologics because of the lack of specialised expertise. The plan, therefore, was to create high-end biologics characterisation facilities that could be used not just by the regulator, but also startups.