Five start-ups that herald the future of biotechnology
Mint identifies five fledgeling companies that are working on breakthroughs that may advance medicine
India ranks among the top 12 biotechnology destinations in the world, and second in Asia after China. Comprising about 400 companies, India’s 1.2 billion-plus population offers a huge market for biotech products and services. An important link in this chain is the role that start-ups will have to play in the sunrise industry to further research. Mint identified five fledgeling companies that are working on breakthroughs that may advance medicine.
Ganit Labs (Genomics Applications and Information Technology Labs)
Set up in: 2011
Founder: Binay Panda
The field of sequencing, or constructing a detailed genetic map, has grown exponentially since the days of Craig Venter, an American biologist who in 2001 became the first to sequence the human genome. The areas where most striking changes have taken place include making the DNA synthesis machine, for example, the enzyme that copies DNA (DNA polymerase) to elongate the chain with minimum errors, and inventing analysis tools that can handle terabytes of data from a single patient.
Ganit Labs is a not-for-profit, public-private partnership project of Bangalore-based, privately held Strand Life Sciences Pvt. Ltd and Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology. The venture is funded both by the government of India and government of Karnataka to create tools, technology and applications of genome science that can be used in fields such as personalized medicine.
Ganit Labs is in the business of studying genomes of individual patients and mapping genes in oral cancer, besides looking for what coding errors cause a host of genetic disorders in India. It also creates analytical tools that help effective analyses, mining and management of large volumes of genome data, mainly from genome sequencing of disease tissues like cancer.
“We don’t want to use the ‘one size fits all’ theory in cancer treatment, when specialized drugs can be given to patients based on their genetic make-up,” said Binay Panda, a veteran biotechnologist, who founded Ganit Labs in 2010.
The company is now venturing into metabolic engineering (optimizing genetic and regulatory processes within cells to increase production of a certain substance) of neem-based compounds.
Storing stem cells
Set up in: 2004
When a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential either to remain a stem cell or become another type of cell with a more specialized function—such as a muscle cell, a red blood cell, or a brain cell. Given their unique regenerative abilities, they have the potential for treating diseases such as diabetes, and heart disease.
Stem cells are typically culled from the umbilical cord blood just after childbirth and specially refrigerated for future use. Chennai-based LifeCell International is one such firm that takes cares of the storage of stem cells. The cells sent by hospitals are kept in a cryopreservation solution (a commercial lab preservative for storage of cells) and then refrigerated at minus 200 degree Celsius in stainless steel vessels containing liquid nitrogen.
“The sample, which is about 25ml in volume, is finally stored in a package which is the size of a standard mobile phone,” said Mayur Abhaya, managing director and chief executive officer of LifeCell International.
The firm, co-founded by Abhaya Kumar in 2004, has two storage banks—one each in Chennai and Gurgaon—and collects stem cells for storage from over 100 cities across India. The firm, which charges about Rs.19,900 to store stem cells in the first year and Rs.3,500 annually thereafter, currently has around 100,000 units in its two banks. It received external funding of about Rs.35 crore from Helion Venture Partners Llc in February 2013.
Making new affordable, efficient drugs
Set up in: 2013
The discoveries of new biological entities (NBEs), biobetters and biosimilars, which are forms of biological drugs, have the potential to counter life-threatening diseases and advance medicine. Biosimilars are biological products that are affordable versions of existing drugs and therapies in the market, while biobetters are products that enhance the efficiency of some known drugs and therapies, NBEs are completely new biologics (medicinal products obtained from biological sources) that can fight diseases.
Theramyt Novobiologics develops biobetters and NBEs while focusing on treatments for diseases such as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, metabolic disorders and cardiovascular diseases. “Biotech healthcare needs collaborative research and development and smart application of science to control the costs of healthcare and meet the therapy requirements of wider population and disease types,” said Sohang Chatterjee, who founded the company with Kavitha Iyer Rodrigues.
The firm raised its first round of external funding of Rs.27.5 crore from Accel Partners, Aarin Capital Partners, Karnataka government-backed KITVEN Fund, and IDG Ventures India in October 2013. The money was used to build the firm’s 14,500 sq. ft research facility in Bangalore and for initial development work of its product pipeline.
Beating drug resistance
Set up in: 2011
Founder: Radha Rangarajan
Antibiotics and similar drugs, clubbed together as antimicrobial agents, have been used for the last 70 years to treat patients with infectious diseases. But over time, micro-organisms like certain strains of bacteria, viruses and fungi have become resistant to these drugs.
Vitas Pharma was founded in 2011 with this problem in mind. “If certain medicines lose efficacy, there will be a gaping hole in the efficiency of medicine as we know it today,” said Radha Rangarajan, founder and chief executive officer of Vitas Pharma. She said the company, which was co-founded with Rajinder Kumar, who is now the company’s chief medical officer, synthesizes newer anti-bacterial molecules and drugs that can fight certain drug-resistant strains of bacteria.
The lab focuses on identifying proteins that are drug resistant, synthesizes molecules and customizes their chemical structure to fight the disease-producing bacteria being studied. The structure of the drug molecules are analysed using computer-aided drug design. The final three-dimensional structure of the drug molecule is simulated using a technique called structure-based drug design. The lab performs multiple iterations of structural testing to check if the drug molecule has the right in-vitro (studied outside a living organism) features before testing the drug on animals and later on human beings.
Vitas Pharma is currently working on four such drugs, one of which is expected to undergo the human drug efficacy trial (phase II A trial) in the next 12 months.
Set up in: 2009
Bangalore-based Achira Labs produces laboratory tests on fabrics and on microchips too, which means less plastic and glass sensors, and greener solutions to lab assessments.
The company builds two kinds of lab-on-a-chip (miniaturized systems for biomedical and medical applications) products. The fab chip platform uses yarn coated with appropriate biological reagents like antibodies or enzymes that is woven into a piece of fabric. Strips of fabric are then cut out, packaged and can be used for different biological laboratory assessments like pregnancy tests, etc. A simple handloom can produce thousands of laboratory sensors at low cost.
Achira Labs’ microfluidic platform comprises two components—a reader and cartridges for the particular assessment. The customer loads samples into a reagent (substance or compound added to induce a chemical reaction) containing plastic cartridges, and the fluid-handling systems located inside the reader unit complete all the steps of the assessment before displaying the results. These platforms are used for pregnancy confirmation tests, female fertility tests and thyroid disorder tests.
The firm is funded by research grants from the Grand Challenges Canada, a Canadian government-funded agency, and the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms initiative of the government of India through Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council.
Editor's Picks »
- Reliance Jio seen overtaking Vodafone Idea, Airtel to become India’s largest telecom firm by 2018-end
- ArcelorMittal’s Essar Steel acquisition: Who wins, who loses
- UltraTech’s dismal Q2 results darken outlook on cement sector
- NBFC liquidity crisis set to worsen real estate sector woes
- RBI pause on interest rate hike may last only till December