How IISc is fostering incubation of deep-science startups



FSID has incubated about 80 deep science startups in the last 10 years, and is incubating about 30 more

Bengaluru: The website of this Bengaluru-based startup Mynvax may still be under construction but this Indian Institute of Science (IISc)-incubated deep science startup has been working on vaccines for the last seven years. It started out by making a vaccine for influenza but after the covid-19 outbreak, Mynvax began working on a vaccine that can protect against the numerous variants of covid.

“Since covid-19 is a fast-evolving virus, existing seasonal vaccines do not provide long term protection. Mynvax is developing protective vaccines for covid-19 that are effective across all variants and do not require cold chain for storage and distribution. The influenza and covid-19 vaccines are now ready for clinical development," says Raghavan Varadarajan, the startup’s co-founder. He added that the vaccine is in clinical trials now, “and the first candidate may become available next year".

Another spin-off startup from the Flexible Electronics Lab at IISc, Openwater, aims to make water treatment and wastewater management “hassle-free". With its portable products that can be similar to the size of washing machines or even to units that can be part of standard shipping container modules, Openwater is able to cater to clients who want to treat 1,000 litres a day to a few hundred thousand litres a day. The portable systems use sensors, data analytics and real-time monitoring to optimize the process and improve overall treatment efficiency. “We also offer ‘wastewater treatment-as-a-service’ for certain projects where the customer wants to avoid an upfront capex (capital expenditure) cost," says Sanjiv Sambandan, founder and director at Openwater, and also its chief technology officer.

Both these startups have two things in common. First, they have been incubated at IISc by the Society for Innovation Development (SID) that was set up in 1991 in partnership with the former. And second, unlike the thousands of deeptech startups in India, they pride themselves on being deep science startups. “We recognized that there must also be an active effort to translate science into something useful. Therefore, such startups play a very crucial role in taking the science and translating it into usable solutions and products," explains C. S. Murali, chairperson, STEM Cell, Foundation for Science, Innovation and Development (FSID) at IISc.

FSID has incubated about 80 such startups in the last 10 years, and is currently incubating about 30.

According to Murali, the entrepreneurs need not be IISc alumni or faculty—“they could be anybody". SID does provide space and “some other benefits" but incubates only those startups that have science at the core as opposed to just using technology, he adds.

Azooka Labs is a case in point. The startup that has patented a fluorophore (chemical substance with flouresence properties that can emit light after absorbing light or other electromagnetic radiation) and is focused on developing safe biotech consumables.

Their products include mWRAPR—a molecular transport medium for covid-19 and biological samples (eg. PCR/RT PCR Test) that does not get easily contaminated. Similarly, Astrome has pioneered the Multi-Beam E-band Radio (70-80 GHz) called GigaMesh, which can reduce the deployment cost of 5G and high-speed rural broadband networks. It also has a product called GigaSat—a Ku (12-18 GHz) / Ka (27-40 GHz)-band electronically-steerable low-cost terminal for satellite communication markets.

But how does SID identify these startups? First, the SID team inspects whether the startups are solving any real world problem and second, whether the startup is solving the problem using science? “Our final step is to have the founders present in front of a panel that comprises people from SID, some IISc faculty with domain expertise in those areas, and one or two industry experts from that specific sector so that they can bring in a business perspective on how to use the product (or service), and ask the right questions," explains Murali.

Once the startups are accepted for incubation, they are provided with space, mentoring, and access to equipment at the relevant IISc labs. “IISc has a lot of equipment, which is expensive, and not easily accessible to outsiders. To give you one example, there is a central animal facility at IISc which has all the clearances (ethical, etc.) for trails," Murali adds.

Most of those who approach SID for incubation, are scientists, and a lot of them are PhDs but not all of them have business acumen, according to Murali. “This (developing business acumen) is also one area where we try to help out. When they are getting close to marketing (the product or service), we find mentors from the industry who can help them," he adds. The mentors typically are people who have just retired, or are about to retire, or those “bored with the corporate life, and want to do something exciting, and work with such entrepreneurs", according to Murali.

Further, SID had developed a so-called “deep mentorship model", where the institute identifies a mentor in a specific domain, and then introduces him to a specific startup, and even pays a “retainer fee". “Most say they do not want the money but we insist that accept this because there is a serious commitment. And we do it only for six months, following which the mentors, if needed, can continue working directly with the startup.

SID, according to Murali, does not take any initial rent from the startups for the space to ease their cashflow. The idea is to bring them to a stage where investors realize that this is a big opportunity.

Murali cited the case of the two-year-old Agnit Semiconductors that specializes in offering Gallium Nitride (GaN) semiconductor components which play a crucial role in the development of various electronic applications including 5G telecom towers, electric vehicle (EV) charging solutions, and automotive-to-solar photovoltaic (PV) inverters. India also has done a lot of research on gallium nitride, explains Murali, who believes that it will do better than silicon chips in the long run. Second, gallium nitride is better suited for use in electric vehicles (EVs) and other “power hungry" electronic devices. Further, India can set up a full-fledged gallium nitride fab at just one-tenth the cost of that of a silicon-based semiconductor fab, Murali explains.

That said, incubating deep science startups is not easy due to the long gestation periods. The drug Penicillin, for instance, took 14 years from discovery to its application in 1942. Polythene, which is a commonly-used plastic in packaging (bags, films, etc.) and used to make bottles and boxes, took 35 years from discovery to its first application in 1933.​ However, Murali and his team believe that incubating and investing in deep-science startups is not only good for India but also for science.

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