National Technology Day: Unlimited Promises Of Biotechnology

Biotechnology has been a buzzword for academia and industry alike and has always been seen as a sector of the future with unlimited promises. Though it had made huge imprints on different sectors, the world realized its true potential to serve humanity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Riding on the progress made during the last decades, modern biotechnology delivered numerous kinds of vaccines, drugs, and other technologies at an unimaginable pace. The leadership shown by the biotechnology industry and institutions in India gained praise from all because it not only served its population in coming out of the pandemic but also helped other countries to tide over the pandemic. This overwhelmed everyone, and the jargon of biotechnology was on everybody’s lips; all seemed to have started understanding the nuance of biotechnology. In a nutshell, modern biotechnology saved humanity from one of the worst crises it had faced.

Biotechnology in history

According to one definition of biotechnology, it is an “application of the principles of engineering and biological science to create new products from raw materials of biological origin.” Though not in a structured manner, during their course of evolution, humans always used contemporary knowledge and tools to exploit biological matter to improve the quality of life. Development of traditional medicinal systems like Ayurveda, animal cross-breeding, domestication of plants, improvisation of agricultural techniques, milk products, use of microbes, and fermentation products were humans’ earliest “biotechnological” pursuits in ancient times.

Though the term Biotechnology was coined by Karl Erkey, a Hungarian engineer, in 1919; the true development of modern biotechnology took decades. In the initial years, fundamental discoveries in biological sciences like Mendelian genetics, nucleic acids & laws of inheritance, and the discovery of antibiotics laid the foundation for the development of biotechnology. The discovery of double-helical DNA structure using X-ray crystallography, which explained the transfer of genetic information from one generation to another, provided the impetus for modern biotechnology. The real boost came after Hargobind Khorana succeeded in the chemical synthesis of DNA, and later, Karl Mullis designed Polymerase Chain

Reaction (PCR) method to rapidly amplify a target DNA stretch by a thousand times more than the original amount of DNA. Discoveries like hybridoma technology, stem-cell technology, precision gene editing techniques, omics platforms, imaging technology, mRNA technology, structural biology methods, machine learning, and artificial intelligence continue to expand the reach and horizon of biotechnology.

Biotechnology in India

Like in other places around the world, biotechnology started in India with research in fundamental biological sciences by scientists like Jagadish Chandra Bose, G. N. Ramachandran, Subhash Mukhopadhyay, and others. To distinguish between biology and biotechnology projects and formulate an appropriate national policy and new funding mechanisms to build up the biotechnology Department of Science & Technology constituted a National Biotechnology Board (NBTB) in 1982. NBTB later evolved into a separate department, and the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) was set up under the Ministry of Science and Technology in February 1986, with an initial budget of around ₹ 40-60 million.

In the same year, at the initiative of UNIDO, one component of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology (ICGEB) was established in New Delhi. ICGEB was the first institute in India to exclusively focus on biotechnology. The National Institute of Immunology (NII), which was conceived to grow on the aegis of the ICMR–WHO Research & Training Centre in Immunology and has been in operation since 1981 at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi was the first institute to be brought under the wings of DBT as an autonomous institute. In the next two decades, DBT established seventeen autonomous institutes, each focusing on different areas of biotechnology and four public sector undertakings.

To create a pool of qualified human resources required for highly specialized biotechnology research and industry, DBT provided financial assistance to several universities and scientific institutions to start M.Sc., M.Tech., PhD, and post-doctoral programs with studentship and fellowship. Over the years, these programs have matured, evolved, and provided a critical mass of trained human resources, powering the biotechnology industry.

Key government initiatives to promote biotechnology

Considering biotechnology as a sunrise sector and a key part of India’s vision of reaching a $5 Trillion economy by 2024, the government, in the last decade, has paid special attention and initiated new funding mechanisms to bolster the biotechnology industry. The government has allotted ₹2,683.86 crore (~$325 million) to the Department of Biotechnology in the 2023-24 budget, almost double its budget outlay in 2013-14. In addition, recent initiatives like Aatmanirbhar Bharat, Swasth Bharat, Startup India, and Make in India have fueled the biotechnology industry.

The Department of Biotechnology has created a unique not-for-profit section 8, Schedule B, Public Sector Undertaking called Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), which works as an industry-academia interface to foster innovation, entrepreneurship, and commercialization, promote affordable innovation in key social sectors and empower start-ups & small and medium enterprises. It has played a transformative and catalytic role in building a biotechnology start-up ecosystem by creating more than 75 incubators across the country and supporting more than 4000 start-ups with an investment of more than ₹ 6,000 crore, of which around ₹ 2,400 crore has come from the industry.

Funded at a total cost of ₹1500 crore, co-funded by the World Bank at 50% cost sharing with the Department of Biotechnology, the National Biopharma Mission (NBM), a government-industry-academia collaboration, was launched in 2017 for ‘Accelerating Discovery Research to Early Development for Biopharmaceuticals.’ The mission is supporting 197 grantees working in different verticals-Medical devices and diagnostics, vaccines, and biotherapeutics to plug in the necessary gaps in the biopharmaceutical development pipeline

In 2021, a new biotechnology centre for Northeast tribals in the remote area of Kimin (Arunachal Pradesh) was inaugurated, and a pan-India Star College Mentorship Programme for young innovators supported by the Department of Biotechnology was launched. The Department of Biotechnology has created 51 Biotech-KISAN (Biotech Krishi Innovation Science Application Network) hubs in different Agro-climatic zones of the country to connect farmers with scientists and research institutions. The initiative is to enable innovation in agriculture, promote sustainable agricultural practices and empower farmers, especially women farmers, with scientific information on new Agri-technologies. In 2022, it has helped more than 160,000 farmers across India. GOBARdhan (Galvanizing Organic Bio-Agro Resources Dhan), another scheme with a total investment of ₹10,000 crore, was launched in 2023 to promote a circular economy. Under the scheme, it is planned to commission 500 new ‘waste to wealth’ plants, including 200 compressed biogas (CBG) plants, 75 plants in urban areas, and 300 community or cluster-based plants. To foster collaboration among startups, industry, academia, and research organizations, 75 Amrit Grants worth ₹10-15 crore ($1.2-1.8 million) for biotech projects have been announced.

The Department of Biotechnology (DBT) launched a Biomanufacturing initiative on 7, July 2023, a ‘plug and play’ manufacturing model for Industry 4.0, to promote biomanufacturing and bio-economy in India with activities ranging from R&D to pilot scale. Advanced biotechnology tools, like synthetic biology, genome editing, metabolic engineering, robotics, artificial intelligence, etc., will likely form the backbone for this initiative. DBT has identified six thematic priority sectors with a tagline for each of the sectors:

1. Biobased catalysts and enzymes: catalyzing greener reactions.

2. Functional foods and smart proteins: tasty without cruelty.

3. Precision Biotherapeutics: remedies that understand You.

4. Climate change resilient agriculture: Krishi that makes earth happy.

5. carbon capture and biomass utilization: recover to prosper.

6. Futuristic maritime and space research: diving into infinity.

Biotechnology as a driver of the economy  

The biotechnology industry has benefited immensely from supportive government policies and enabling ecosystem. The Indian bio-economy for 2021 accounts for nearly 2.6% share of India’s GDP. India’s bio-economy has grown from $10 billion to $80 billion during 2014-2022. It is expected to reach $150 billion by 2025 and $300 billion by 2030. The growth is fueled by rising demand at both domestic and international levels. Investment in bio-economy has increased from ₹10 crore in 2014 to ₹4200 crore in the last 8 years. This growth of over 400 times has generated more than 25,00 highly skilled employment opportunities. During the same period, biotechnology startups have increased to 5300 compared to a mere 52 startups in 2014. At this rate, the number of biotechnology startups is expected to grow to more than 10,000 by 2025. All these have brought India among the top 10 destinations for biotechnology worldwide, and it is expected that the contribution of the Indian biotechnology industry to global biotechnology to grow to 19%. The pace of the growth of the biotechnology sector can be gauged from the fact that it crossed one-billion-dollar R&D spend, and it almost trebled within a year from $320 million in 2020 to $1.02 billion in 2022, and products have increased from 10 products to more than 700 in 2022.

Among the different biotechnology sectors, the Bio-Pharmaceutical industry contributes about 62% to the bio-economy. In recent years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indian Bio-Pharmaceutical industry has grown phenomenally and gained global trust so much that now India is called the “pharmacy of the world.” India already had strong vaccine programs like BCG, Rotavirus ($1 vaccine by Bharat Biotech), Recombinant Hepatitis B vaccine, Japanese encephalitis, polio, bi-valent oral vaccine for cholera, and Meningitis A, which are exported to more than 150 countries.

Using the already built-up capacity and support from the current government, Indian companies produced different kinds of vaccines, like inactivated virus vaccine (Covaxin by Bharat Biotech), viral vector vaccine (Covishield by Serum Institute of India), subunit vaccine (Corbevax by Biological E., Covovax by Serum Institute of India), DNA vaccine (ZyCoV-D by Zydus Cadila), and mRNA vaccine (HGCO19 by Gennova Biopharmaceuticals), and using them more than 2.2 billion Covid-19 doses were administered in India and around 300 million doses of Covid vaccines supplied to 101 countries under the Vaccine Maitri program. Covid vaccines alone accounted for $8.7 billion of the value of India’s biotechnology sector, which was about 18% of the bio-economy. Vaccines and biotherapeutics are expected to generate $15 billion each by 2025. The therapeutics segment will likely create a bio-economy of $15 billion from recombinant and biosimilar products. Similarly, the Indian biologics market is forecasted to reach US$ 12 billion by 2025 at a CAGR of 22%.

BioAgriculture, comprising BtCotton, pesticides, marine biotech, and animal biotech, currently contributing to about 13% of the bio-economy, is likely to reach $20 billion in 2025, doubling its bio-economy contribution. The BioServices sector comprising CROs/CDMOs and the BioIT segment, which now accounts for about 7% of the bio-economy, is forecasted to quadruple and reach $26.6 billion. New segments like smart proteins, protein and peptide-based materials, contact lenses, speech restorers, smart pills, nerve regenerators, portable dialysis, prosthetic limbs, and a new wave of smart tele-diagnostics could add $10 billion to the bio-economy. As the push for green energy becomes stronger and the government has advanced its plan to bring 20% ethanol mixed fuel into the market, from the earlier timeline of 2030 to 2025, it is expected that the Biofuels segment will contribute about $50 billion, while enzymes will add another $20 billion. Inaugurating the Biotech Startup Expo – 2022 at Pragati Maidan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said the Biotech sector is one of the most demand-driven sectors. The campaigns for ease of living in India over the years have opened up new possibilities for the biotech sector. He lauded the significant role of the biotech industry in the development of the country.

As we see today, Biotechnology touches every sphere of human life, from food to fuel, from health to wealth, and it is the technology of choice for fulfilling human’s perennial desires for everlasting well-being and to make its existence better. In that sense, Biotechnology is Amrit for humans in this Amrit Kaal.

(By arrangement with Perspective Bytes)


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