India's Biotech Startups Enter Uncharted Territories

Estimated to make up 19 per cent of the global biotech industry by 2025, the Indian biotech industry currently comprises over 5,000 companies, 4,240 of which are startups

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The Indian 'bio-economy' has grown eight times over the last eight years to reach $80 billion, said Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Biotech Startup Expo 2022 that was held last week. Biotechnology, which employs technology to solve complex human challenges with technology, spans various branches such as animal biotechnology, medical biotechnology, industrial and environmental biotechnology.

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Estimated to make up 19 per cent of the global biotech industry by 2025, the Indian biotech industry currently comprises over 5,000 companies, 4,240 of which are startups. With the pandemic rendering healthcare innovation unusually urgent, biotech startups witnessed a notable boom in the past couple of years, crystallizing especially around vaccine and essential drugs development. But biotech entrepreneurs have ventured into even more categories, expanding the offerings of the industry to include food security, clean energy, therapeutics and industrial processes, among others.

Genomics

In the recent past, many startups have emerged out of the convergence of biomedical sciences with disciplines such as genomics—the study of the complete set of DNA (including all of its genes) in a person or other organism—to enable better disease prevention, enhanced diagnosis, and optimized treatment. Estimated to reach $94.65 billion in 2028, the global genomics market counts within its ambit a few important Indian biotech startups. For instance, MapMyGenome was founded in 2013 to offer customers DNA-based immunity report containing information about vulnerability to certain diseases and most effective drugs and has raised $1 million from investors.

Xcode Life Sciences was founded in 2010 to specialise in personal genomics and preventive healthcare. As per the startup, which has raised $170 million, "Xcode Life reports are compatible with more than 50 raw data formats including 23andMe, AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA (FTDNA), Living DNA, My Heritage DNA, and whole-genome sequencing files."

Bangalore-headquartered Ganit Labs is a not-for-profit, state-funded, public-private partnership initiative in the area of functional genomics and next-generation sequencing. Founded in 2013, Ganit uses DNA sequencing to help pharmaceutical companies to create personalized medicines for diseases such as cancer and diabetes, among others. The startup, which has raised $119 million, claims to have offered more than 500 genetic tests and partnered with 5,500 clinicians across 1,600 hospitals.

Agriculture and Green Power

The Indian agritech market is expected to reach $24 billion by 2025, as per research from EY. With 1,483 startups currently populating the country's agritech industry, many ventures have made a name for themselves. Sea6 Energy, for instance, was founded by four IIT-Madras students and their professor in 2010. An 'ocean operating system', the startup claims to have harnessed the seaweed grown in oceans in a sustainable way to create a range of bioproducts that can boost agriculture, enhance animal and plant immunity and provide an alternative source of energy. It has raised $8.9 million from investors including Tata Capital and Biocon's founder and CEO Kiran Mazumdar Shaw.

In 2018, clean tech startup Solnce Technologies introduced its desalination plant, Sol-Evo, and started a pilot project by installing its standalone unit in a village in Gujarat. Aiming to help rural coastal villages overcome irregular electricity, the company's solar thermal plant has been able to convert 1,500 litres of seawater to potable water every day. In 2020, the startup won the United Nations Development Programme's Innovations award for Sustainable Development Goals.

Industrial Processes

Industrial or white biotechnology is that branch of biotechnology which is associated with industrial processes. It uses microorganisms and enzymes to produce goods for industry, including chemicals, plastics, food, agricultural and pharmaceutical products and energy carriers. The Indian industrial biotechnology (enzymes) market grew to touch around $372.5 million in FY2021, as per BioSpectrum India. Despite the market being dominated by multinational companies such as Novozymes South Asia, Danisco (India), DSM Nutritional Products, etc., the sector's recent expansion has partly been aided by the rise of many interesting startups: Delhi-based Niir Project Consultancy Services (NPCS), for example, offers consultancy services for the manufacture of industrial products such as Ayurvedic medicines, herbal cosmetics, adhesives, sealants, glues, breakfast snacks, bamboo and cane-based products, etc.

Bengaluru-based Kcat Enzymatic is an enzyme/protein engineering group that specializes in providing optimized enzymes for industrial applications. At present, they are working to engineer Transaminase with high Kcat values 800 folds increased activity and stability for industrial production of antidiabetic Sitagliptin, antiepileptic Pregabalin and a specific herbicide. Additionally, founded at IIT-Delhi in 2020, Edna BioLabs produces specialty enzymes for the Indian and global market. Their initial product offering includes enzymes in the molecular biology and mass spectrometry segments, as well as derivative products including kits and reagent mixes.