Venturing into drug discovery

Venturing into drug discovery

The government’s announcement on Monday that it proposes to set up a Rs3,000 crore venture capital (VC) fund for drug discovery is akin to the onset of a good monsoon in the parched landscape of life sciences, where venture funds no doubt exist, but aren’t really active. Their patrons prefer the risk-free business of healthcare services.

With the little information that is available, the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy is finalizing the bid document and an expression of intent will be issued this month by the department of pharmaceuticals for identifying a global consultant. The consultant will prepare a detailed project report for making India a drug discovery hub by 2020.

This must happen sooner rather than later, as by now the funding agencies know how limited their risk appetite is when it comes to funding radical research. They’re also aware that the so-called life sciences funds in India are mostly fence-sitters. Take, for instance, the invention that Mint reported on Tuesday—a new insulin formulation developed by the National Institute of Immunology. At least four Indian companies had signed non-disclosure agreement with the research team, but in the end, it remained just that—undisclosed intent. Meanwhile, a US company licensed the technology and will soon begin testing it.

Globally, as the ageing population enters the years of highest healthcare needs, venture capitalists haven’t missed the growth opportunities in life sciences. But VCs in India remain wary. That’s ironical, as funding is needed the most for early-stage companies that don’t have an exit strategy but need money to progress down that path—of moving assets into the marketplace or clinics, as the case may be.

The government thinks there’s a need to create a good biopharmaceutical resource pool and believes the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research should start new courses. Meanwhile, substantive skilled resources are available overseas, keen to return to India. But, as this newspaper has reported earlier, they find the bureaucracy tough to crack.

As we move into a brave new world of targeted therapy and personalized medicine, better strategies, larger funds and additional researchers are needed—more is less.

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