As the BioTech industry heads into the era of Pharma 4.0, we find ourselves on the cusp of a new revolution in healthcare- one that’s driven by advanced digital technologies, automation, and relentless innovation and research. 

From gene editing and cell therapy to personalized medicine and synthetic biology, the possibilities are, indeed, limitless. 

In the Indian context, the significance is particularly profound. India, known for its thriving pharmaceutical industry and vast population, faces unique healthcare challenges that demand a new approach. The integration of new-age technologies holds the promise of addressing these challenges by enhancing healthcare access, affordability, and effectiveness.

Pharma 4.0 is not just a futuristic vision; it is a tangible reality that is transforming the landscape of biotech here and around the world. 

However, as we as far along as we should have been today? Have we been able to identify the crucial challenges that are hindering the progress of this industry? More importantly, are we well-placed to tackle them? 

The need of the hour is collaboration and open communication among those leading the change. 

As part of our Technology Game Changers series, Global Talent Exchange recently convened 11 influential industry leaders in the Biotech and Biopharma space for an extraordinary exchange of perspectives and insights. 

The discussion was expertly moderated by Venkat Kamalakar Bundla (Managing Director- Garphi Biosciences). A seasoned leader in the Pharmaceutical industry with over three decades of experience, he has a strong background in Strategy, Operations, and General Management. Venkat has transformed Garphi into a globally recognized Pharma and Biotech Advisory. With a vast network across 80+ countries, the esteemed leader serves as a board member and advisor to various Life Science companies and Industry Associations like ABLE India. His angel investments are focused on AI, Medtech, Pharma, Tech, and other new-age businesses.

This roundtable was a momentous milestone in our collective pursuit of a future where tech and biology unite for the greater good.

Avinash Bichali set the tone of the discussion by providing a brief overview of how India is now a key player in the global Biotech arena- backed by supportive government policies, research and development initiatives, and a talented scientific workforce. However, we are not free of challenges. A complex regulatory environment, limited access to funding and investment, IP protection, and a lack of skilled talent continue to hold us back. 

Venkat added to this by mentioning that despite these challenges, India has come a long way. We now service 50-60% of the world’s requirements and are in the top 10 destinations for biotech worldwide and top 3 in Asia, itself. It is now an 80 billion dollar industry and aims to achieve the milestone of 300 billion by 2030. 

The discussion was then thrown open to the panelists. 

Where does India Biotech stand today? What are the current strengths and weaknesses?

All the panelists referred to the Covid pandemic, which showcased how well India was able to deal with a health crisis so large with a population like ours. The foreign media continued to forecast how India would suffer gravely; instead, our solutions ended up saving the world. 

The stage we are at right now can best be described as ‘incremental innovation’. While this is necessary, if we are to reach the audacious goals set by 2030, we must look toward disruptive innovation. Startups are more likely to do this than well-established legacy companies in the nation. Talent is there, money is there- all we need is for someone to raise their hand, and lead the charge. It was also pointed out that too many regulatory hurdles cause such startups to ‘lose steam’ as their product is unable to hit the market fast. It is because of challenges like these that our best minds choose to go “out” (across borders) and innovate there instead. 

A thought leader identified that investors in India do not like taking risks. They would rather put their money in areas where they can see immediate returns coming in, and not in one where the developments are merely in the nascent stage. They will come forward only when there is a solid proof of concept. Thus, we are facing a challenge- despite having the correct ecosystem in India, we are not able to flourish due to the lack of investment in the beginning stages of innovation. There has been a recorded PE-VC funding of over 150 Billion over the last 10-12 years; however, only 8% of that went to the pharmaceutical industry. 

On a positive note, a visionary added that India’s commercial model, where medicines are readily available and relatively cheap, is found nowhere else in the world. There are many competitors for every product in our market, which helps keep the pricing low and also meets the demand of such a huge population. Developed countries are still grappling with this, but we have moved forward. 

It was spotlighted that 70-80% of startups are in the medical devices space; however, there isn’t much focus on new drugs, biotherapeutics, and emerging tech in general. We must embrace automation- just the usage of RPAs has brought the submission time down from 8 months to almost 1 month! 

What can we do about this? One panelist proposed that biotech is one industry where experience is essential. Young startups need a strong board of advisors and mentors that have worked on such problems and understand the history well. They need someone who can navigate them through the complexities, and tell them what the industry really needs and how they execute their brilliant ideas.

The discussion around challenges faced went on……

Biology is not a weak spot for India. Marrying it with the right technology- there’s our gap. We also need not emulate the West; India’s needs are far different from any other geography in the world. 

However, another panelist was of a different view. Biology can never be fully known. There’s a lot about medicine and diseases we don’t know and cannot know even until the time is right. Thus, we are always part of a global race. 

Young innovators are also missing out on the right business model to accompany their ideas; not all have access to good opportunities and money. How to get a grant, how to obtain a patent- they’re clueless. It’s the fault of weak rules and regulations, which are still a work in progress. It’s also the fault of our education system, which seriously lags behind where the industry really stands today. The pace of change is too rapid today, and they are not able to keep up with the gap that exists between what they’re taught and what the reality is. 

How has the Indian government been involved in promoting the development of the biotech industry?

PM Modi delivers inaugural address at India Global Week 2020

The leaders from BIRAC were able to give us a glimpse into what work the government is doing. Incubation centers were established in 2012 and specific programs have been designed for entrepreneurs, wherein they receive mentorship and business proposal guidance. Even today, new centers are coming up regularly, one being the bio-incubation facility and technology transfer offices (TTOs). These TTOs have supported 7 research tech offices, which are strategically located, and they help budding entrepreneurs get the funding they need. There are hands-on skill development programs as part of the national biopharma mission. They also pointed out that a lot of Indian talent is coming from outside, back home to innovate in India. 

However, to counter this, one panelist pointed out that we might be doing a lot to develop skills and mentor the young population, but at the end of the day, they are still ‘unemployable’. There’s a persistent skill gap, as we are not marrying skills with actual execution. We will lose out on the buzz if this does not happen fast. Young professionals are not ready to join an organization and start contributing. The application of bioinformatics to deliver value is missing. We must be clear on where we want to focus, what modality we are using, and how we plan to execute it. We cannot learn until we fail. 

In what areas does the industry require the most support from the leaders?

Over time, we have noticed an improvement in controlling bacterial diseases and there is enhanced patient consideration and patient outcomes. This has been made possible by sufficiently large patient trials which have been done. However, we still face challenges with responsible use of medication/vaccines, and hospital infection control. Collaboration is required between the government, industry, and academia. All the stakeholders must pitch in and do their part. 

The critical question was then posed- What are the reasons for the massive skill shortage in biotech in India?

The panelists were adamant that the real skills the industry needs at this point in time are missing. This is because, again, we are not giving the younger generation the right education and training. Another observation was that there is an inevitable bias for the industry to seek out highly experienced skilled professionals as we need to hit the ground running immediately. While that is necessary, we have a duty to not overlook the fresher talent and the newer generations that are just learning. Industries must invest in skilling them- this will benefit the organization and the country too, in the long run. 

How are emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Big Data Analytics being used in Biotech? What changes has it brought about already?

The panelists talked about the benefits of these emerging technologies and pointed out how such tools help us get access to vast amounts of legitimate data quickly. However, acquiring it is not enough. Someone must make sense of that data- which only a human can do at this point in time. We need a proper talent pool that is trained on how to work with these data sets, extract meaning from them, and use it practically. 

Since the discussion revolved so heavily around change, Venkat proposed a very interesting question. How do we bring in the correct mindset for this? How do we move from the traditional ways? 

There has to be a change in the academic environment, without which we are lost. We must create an ecosystem of mentors for each level in the training institutions- from start to finish. Industry leaders should come in, and give the young students a glimpse into the reality of Biotech right now. Students can also be made to speak to patients, to understand better why we do what we do. 
The industry must also start focusing on patient outcomes more. USA’s AI healthcare market is growing at a CAGR of 38%. Healthcare data doubles every 73 days. By 2030, there are likely to be 22 Billion IOT devices on the market. We are using new-age technology to help us with process efficiency; instead, we need to focus on disease prediction and personalized medicine. We must look at patient phenotypes to come up with new treatments. 

Lastly, what does the future of Biotech look like in India?

The Biotech industry has become extremely lucrative. We have new ideas and many of them, which increases our chances of success. Covid has shown that India can make the right decisions and come out on top because of it.
We are poised at a very exciting area. We can be both ‘India for India’ and ‘India for the world’- there is no dearth of young talent and investors, plus we have a nourishing ecosystem and stakeholders with belief. 
We must marry the right mindset with the right mentors and the right investors. Everyone needs to pitch in to make the change possible. 

The panelists walked away from the dialogue enriched with new ideas and perspectives. This closed-door conference was the 12th in our Technology Game Changers Series and we are gearing up for the next. Stay tuned!

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