The Covid-19 opportunity for India's biotech startups

A devastating pandemic has created a huge opportunity for innovators, especially for biotech, medtech and healthcare startups, to create some very valuable Indian companies

Padmaja Ruparel
Updated: Jun 24, 2020 06:00:40 PM UTC
Image: Shutterstock

History has shown how crises can bring tremendous opportunities to recognise new models of businesses that can play game-changing roles. While the COVID-19 pandemic has delivered a cruel hand to mankind, it has also acted as a catalyst for biotech startups to become front-line warriors for a long-term fight against pandemics and endemics. It has put a focus on biotech, the pharmaceutical industry, and the wider healthcare domain. More importantly, it has put a spotlight on the need for innovative products.

As they say, need is the mother of invention and it couldn’t be truer in India’s fight against Covid-19. As the pandemic continued, the country faced acute shortages of ventilators, personal protective equipment (PPE), testing kits, and even hospital beds, among other things. With the number of Covid-19 patients rising each day, the need is becoming increasingly acute. And several research studies have said that this need is expected to increase even further, over the next few months.

On the other hand, India has tried to fill the need with kits and equipment imported from other countries. But unfortunately, Indian tests and medical experts have rejected most of the ‘faulty’ imported products. This has led to a need for self-reliance or 'Atmnirbharta' to meet our critical domestic requirements. It, therefore, became absolutely important for India to develop high-quality products indigenously to cater to the urgent medical needs of its citizens.

This has resulted in a situation where a devastating pandemic has created a huge opportunity for innovators, especially for biotech, medtech and healthcare startups. The Indian startup ecosystem did not fail to rise to the occasion and a wide range of biotech startups took the challenge head on. Despite a more challenging environment due to lockdown, Indian startups are engaged in a race to create effective solutions to help the country fight against the pandemic.

India is home to not only one of the world’s fastest-growing startup ecosystems but also one of the most nimble. Hence, it is the least bit surprising that it took the viral outbreak to infiltrate the Indian borders to trigger the country’s startup machinery. Currently, various innovators of all sizes are working in earnest to develop solutions ranging from vaccines, medical devices, sanitation and disinfection solutions, patient tracking and diagnostics technologies to creating technology-enabled quarantine centers, hospitals, PPEs, etc.

Interestingly, many startups under lockdown have grabbed the present set of opportunities as they leverage their core competencies to build products aimed at bolstering our fight against Covid-19. There are many innovators who have created disinfectant and ozone devices for reuse of PPEs, no-touch sanitiser devices, tech-enabled healthcare units that can be set up quickly and in a scalable format, etc. More importantly, it was necessary to make all of this available at a price-efficient level. This was important as the pandemic has hit the country across all socio-economic strata; therefore, the products need to be accessible and affordable to all.

It is also important that this is a paradigm shift moment for Indian entrepreneurial ecosystem: It has created products that are state-of-the-art in quality and innovation. And this is evident that these products are patented or patentable, and now on a fast-track for being approved by overseas regulators. Many startups such as MyLab, Bione and Redcliffe Life Sciences developed Covid-19 testing kits; artificial intelligence-driven companies have developed a DIY-testing kit for online reports. All of these are not just Covid-related solutions but changes for the long term.

Further, a plethora of large companies are working 24x7 to develop a vaccine for the virus, including Biocon, Bharat Biotech, Serum Institute of India. The pandemic has also established that India is part of the global race to find the vaccine, marking the progress India has made in the biotech sector.

Based on the pre-coronavirus estimates, the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) pegs the Indian BioEconomy at nearly $33.6 billion and that might grow to $100 billion in size by 2025. There are more than 2,600 biotech startups in the country including 50 BIRAC-supported incubators. Further, BIRAC and the government’s Department of Biotechnology (DBT) had targeted 2,000 biotech startups in the country by the year 2020, but that target was surpassed in 2019 itself.

Biotech startups attempting to fight the virus
The subcontinent has emerged as a biotech powerhouse. As entrepreneurs gauge the opportunity for new products, customer and wealth creation, so do investors. In 2019, BIRAC partnered with Indian Angel Network (IAN) to launch BioAngels Network at the Global Bio India 2019. Biotech startups are vying for investments in a competitive market and interesting Indian biotech startups are attracting foreign investors.

In the coming years, health technologies will be pivotal to ensuring inclusive healthcare, providing faster and effective treatments, finding the cure to elusive diseases, improving the quality of life and putting India on the world map. Undoubtedly, the ongoing pandemic is a great opportunity for investors as well as entrepreneurs to create some very valuable companies focused on the health of mankind.

The writer is Founding Partner of IAN Fund

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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