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Both academy & industry shall work together on R&D for new drugs: FABA

Federation of Asian Biotech Associations will soon emerge as Federation of Global Biotech Associations

Dr P Reddanna, President, FABA

Dr P Reddanna, President, FABA

A first rank student from ZPH School in a small village from Kadapa of Andhra Pradesh became professor at University of Hyderabad. He had been elevated to the position of Dean, School of Life Sciences and a member of the Executive Council of the same university. He has guided 41 students for PhD, over 100 students for project works and mentored 30+ post-doctoral scholars in his 40-year career.

In an exclusive interview with Bizz Buzz, emeritus professor Dr P Reddanna, Project Coordinator, BioNEST Incubation Center, School of Life Sciences, University of Hyderabad and President of Federation of Asian Biotech Associations (FABA), shares his plans to expand FABA activities to other continents. He is strongly promoting academy-industry collaboration for innovative discoveries and drug development

What are the major achievements in the past 40 years of your successful career?

I joined as a faculty member in 1982 in the Department of Zoology, SV University and moved to the University of Hyderabad in 1990. During this period of my professional career spreading over 40 years, I have guided 41 students for PhD, over 100 students for project works and mentored 30+ post-doctoral scholars.

I have played a key role in establishing the National Institute of Animal Biotechnology (NIAB), an autonomous institute of the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, as the founder Director in about 100 acres within the campus of University of Hyderabad.

I had been promoting innovation and entrepreneurship activities within the campus of the university by establishing ASPIRE (Association of Scientific Pursuits for Innovative Research Enterprises), a Section 8 company, and incubation centers - Technology Business Incubation (TBI) in 2008 and BioNEST in 2018. I have also been conducting competitive research in the area of inflammation and cancer with support from national and international funding bodies, government and industry, published more than 200 articles in standard refereed journals with around 10,000 citations and H index of 53.

How is BioNEST supporting the students and young entrepreneurs in setting up their startups? How many patents were filed by them till now?

In order to streamline the innovation and entrepreneurship activities in the university, I was involved in establishing the ASPIRE, which coordinates the activities of all the three incubation centers on the campus, TBI, TIDE (Technology Incubation and Development Enterprise) and BioNEST.

As part of the ASPIRE, awareness is created among the faculty, scholars and students on innovation and entrepreneurship, exposing them to funding support available for young entrepreneurs. The presence of innovative startups in the campus has really motivated several of the faculty members, scholars, students and alumni to either start their own ventures or partner with the startups. This also provided opportunities for internships, project work and employment in the startups. The startups are involved in protecting their innovations by filing patents. Altogether, the startups have so far filed around 36 patents.

How are the R&D activities going on in the pharma and biotech industries of Telangana?

As far as I know, the pharma and biotech industries in Telangana are mainly focusing on the development of generics and biosimilars. As a result, their R&D efforts are confined to the reproduction of already-developed drugs, in terms of efficient process development and cost reduction. I see very limited or no efforts towards innovative product development.

A number of startups are, however, involved in the early discovery part. They need investment support and/or collaborations with big pharma and biotech companies for further development of innovative products.

What are the major challenges in the R&D of new drugs these days? How can the partnership between the industry and academia scale up the research or launch new drugs?

Globally, most of the innovative products have been developed by the industry in collaboration with the academic institutions. While academy remains in the forefront of innovative discovery part, the industry steps in for later development. Unfortunately in India, this is a major limitation. The problem lies with both the academy and the industry.

The venture financing ecosystem is yet to be evolved in India. Though the government is promoting innovation and entrepreneurship through a variety of schemes, there is a need for big-ticket investments in innovative startups by the private venture financing institutions. Industry needs to graduate from generics and biosimilars to innovative product development. There is a need for a change in the mindset of our industries.

How can academia help the startups and early-stage pharma companies in their journey of drug discovery?

Drug discovery is a relay process. Globally, it is very well established that innovations mostly originate from academic institutions and the industry steps in for later development. The academic institutions by focusing on the discovery part, help in cutting the time required and help in de-risking.

It will be very expensive for the industry to establish the infrastructure and employ expert faculty and focus on innovations. The collaboration with the academy is the best for the industry.

Despite having talented manpower, many pharma companies and several government initiatives, the Indian pharma industry is still dependent on China for bulk drugs and other raw materials. What could be the reasons and do you see a turnaround soon?

It is a fact that most of the raw materials are being imported from China. This is not due to lack of technology and expertise to produce them indigenously but because it becomes expensive to make them in India. Indian industry is not able to compete with China in terms of price. China is able to produce them due to the cheap human resources and support from the government in terms of power supply and financial incentives. Unfortunately, this is missing in India.

What steps shall be taken by the Indian government to boost the pharma and biotech research in the country? What kind of policies can promote innovative drug discoveries?

The government shall strengthen the academic institutions in terms of liberal funding for infrastructure development and manpower liberal policies for import of equipment, reagents and consumables. Incentives, similar to those in China, need to be given for indigenous production and supply of reagents.

Implementation of research projects by investigators is becoming impossible as a result of a plethora of guidelines for operation. As a result the scientists have limited time to focus on research. Ease of implementation of research projects is the need of the hour.

BioAsia is the most successful annual event of the FABA. As its President, are you planning to take any new initiatives to push the pharma and biotech industry activities in the region?

All India Biotech Association Southern Chapter (AIBA - SC) was instrumental in organising Biotech Invest 2003, which laid the platform for launching the first global biotech event, BioAsia in February 2004 and the launching of FABA in the same year, by visionary leaders like late Dr BS Bajaj, BP Acharya, Dr AK Sadhukhan, Dr Suresh Pothani, and myself are the founding members of AIBA- SC, FABA and BioAsia. Dr Anwar Naseem, the founder President of FABA from Pakistan played a key role in its expansion to various Asian countries.

Over the years, BioAsia, with the patronage of successive State Governments and with the support of the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India under the leadership of Dr MK Bhan, became a major global BioBusiness forum. Over the years, BioAsia has become the event of the State government and today it is mainly coordinated by the Government of Telangana.

FABA is currently focusing on three key areas of relevance to the academy and industry:

1. Promoting academy industry interactions and address the problems of the industry to gear up for innovative discoveries and product development

2. In order to address the gap in the skills required in the industry and empower fresh graduates with the right skills and enhance their employability, FABA has launched FABA Academy during BioAsia 2020. Today, it has been organising webinars, workshops and conferences to enhance the skill set and expose the fresh graduates to opportunities in various fields of healthcare and biotechnology.

3. Today, we see a big boom in the startups in the life sciences sector, with the incentives being given by the governments and the buzz created by the media. The main problem faced by them is big ticket funding, after their successful journey as a startup, for scaling up and setting up production facilities. The VC environment has not evolved for investments in the lifesciences sector in India. In order to address the problem, FABA has launched the FABA Entrepreneurship division mainly to promote innovation and entrepreneurship and thus the startup ecosystem. As part of that, we have created a forum for the startups, incubation centers, VCs and the established Pharma and Biopharma industries, by organising a Whale Tank event last November.

In addition to the above, FABA is now focusing on expanding its activities beyond Asia. Efforts are underway for establishing the chapters of FABA in Africa, Europe and North America. Eventually, FABA will soon emerge as FGBA (Federation of Global Biotech Associations).

N Sharath Chowdary
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