Aim high: Industry-academia ties could catapult India’s biopharma industry

While academia possesses skills in the research domain, industry must play its expected role in the commercialization of research.
While academia possesses skills in the research domain, industry must play its expected role in the commercialization of research.

Summary

  • We must combine all our skills to boost innovation. An incentive scheme like China’s talent programme could be used to recruit overseas Indians from top global institutes, while domestic universities ascend the biotech learning curve.

The biopharmaceutical industry has been evolving rapidly. During the turbulent period spanning 2019 to 2021, amid the upheaval caused by the covid pandemic, it emerged as a focal point of global discourse. Biopharmaceuticals are drugs and therapies synthesized from living organisms, which includes vaccines, biologics, biosimilars and evolving therapies like cell and gene therapies.

The global biopharmaceutical industry has grown significantly since 1982. Estimated at $528 billion, it is expected to a grow at a compounded annual growth rate in double-digits for years. India has replicated this growth, ranking among the top 12 biotechnology destinations globally. 

In 2023, the Indian biopharma industry surpassed $92 billion, reflecting 15% growth from the previous year. This growth is driven by a rise in chronic diseases, higher income levels, demand for better treatments and the advantages of biopharma over traditional medicine (such as fewer side effects and greater effectiveness in treating chronic illnesses).

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However, as the industry continues to expand, we realize that in an era of continued innovation, it becomes even more important for the industry to adapt to a fast-evolving curve. In this context, while the industry has witnessed tremendous growth over the past decade, further research and innovation in the biopharmaceutical sector necessitate collaborative efforts between the industry and academia.

Collaboration between industry and academia is a strategic imperative: The development and commercialization of bio-therapeutic products not only require extensive research, but also clinical and non-clinical trials that adhere to regulatory norms, necessitating academia and industry collaboration. While academia possesses skills in the research domain, industry must play its expected role in the commercialization of research: i.e., manufacturing, testing, approval and marketing.

While the large international pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors have historically been recognized as drivers of the discovery and development of new drugs, academia has also made significant contributions, laying foundations for the development of several drugs.

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Drugs such as Paclitaxel, Vorinostat, Prezista, Viread and Dexrazoxane have their discovery origins in academia. Despite this, academia’s role has often been perceived as secondary—supporting drug discovery by providing an extended research base to the industry through peer-reviewed publications and strategic partnerships.

Academic drug discovery offers the promise of pioneering new approaches to drug development, leveraging academic innovation and thought processes, to cater to evolving needs and demands. In this context, it is crucial to emphasize that while pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms shall continue to be the major source of new drug development, there is a compelling argument for academia to play a more direct role in translating fundamental science into therapeutics.

Collaborations between industry and academia offer numerous benefits. The covid pandemic demonstrated the success of such collaborations in swiftly developing life-saving vaccines and therapies. India’s first home-grown gene therapy for cancer, developed by IIT Bombay, Tata Memorial Centre, and ImmunoACT, is another example. 

Programmes like the Pfizer-IIT Delhi Innovation and IP Programme and INDovation are good examples of the larger pharmaceutical industry’s efforts to boost the domestic innovation ecosystem. These collaborations foster innovation, as shown by the incubation of 34 healthcare innovators and 19 intellectual property filings in diagnostics, drug delivery, medical devices, and healthcare training.

Additionally, industry-academia linkages also enable setting up a framework for nurturing talent with the skill-sets needed to meet the current demands of industry and prepare them for the biopharma sector’s innovation-driven future.

It has been heartening to note that several pharma and biopharma companies have established global capability centres in India, employing nearly half a million professionals. These centres engage talent in a diverse range of functions across the entire research and development (R&D) value chain, drug commercialization, manufacturing and supply-chain management, physician and patient engagement, business strategy and digital operations.

Also read: We might be closer to finding quick ways to diagnose and treat long covid

In recognizing the benefits of strong industry-academia linkages, it is essential to highlight the establishment of the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) and National Biopharma Mission (NBM). Both these initiatives enhance India’s biopharmaceutical capabilities, aiming for global competitiveness and improved healthcare standards through innovative product development.

Academic institutions in focus: While celebrating our nation’s advancements in biotechnology, including the establishment of a department of biotechnology in 1986 and becoming the third-largest hub for biotech in the Asia Pacific region, there’s a need to encourage further research, innovate and expedite drug development in the biopharma sector.

Empowering academic institutions, particularly through the establishment of technology transfer offices (TTOs), can enhance technology transfer capabilities, ensuring the translation of research into practical solutions. This will accelerate the transformation of scientific discoveries into products that benefit society.

Funding for schemes like India’s Ucchatar Avishkar Yojana should be increased to foster innovation among students and faculty in premier technological institutes. To address the shortage of qualified faculty and researchers, a programme similar to China’s Thousand Talent Programme could be used to recruit overseas Indians from top global institutes with attractive incentives. Additionally, universities should implement specialized training on legal and regulatory frameworks for new biotech interventions. Integrating these into the curriculum will better prepare students for the complexities of the biotech landscape and help nurture a skilled workforce to drive innovation and research.

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