“India can be a biotech superpower in the 21st century” – Interview with Rediff Money

At the Wellspring Hospital in south Bombay on November 8, invitees to the launch of the GenoMed programme, listened in rapt attention as the chief guest, a bureaucrat, shared his vision of India as a potential superpower in the 21st century.

“If the US had Silicon Valley in the 20th century, we will have Genetic Valleys in the 21st century.
Ours should be a ‘bio-click economy’, not a brick-and-mortar economy or a brick-and-click economy,” he said. The applauding audience seemed to enjoy every word of his anecdotal, masterly, incisive, peppy address.

But describing the speaker, Dr Raghunath A Mashelkar, 57, secretary of India’s department of scientific and industrial research, as a bureaucrat is bad form. Sorry.

His achievements in science and research, and activism in intellectual property rights issues, have won him global recognition and honours. (Click the links at the end of the interview). He has endeared himself so much to the government that not only has it honoured him with Padma Bhushan, but retained him as the director-general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research since 1995.

The legendary status of this medium-built man makes even giants such as industrialist Ajay Piramal behave like obedient students in his presence.

In an exclusive interview with Y Siva Sankar, Dr Mashelkar delineated his understanding of the emerging biotech industry, “the next Big Opportunity after infotech for India”.

It is now universally agreed that governments should not be in business. Now you say genomics is the next big business opportunity for India. And the government is seeking to actively engage in this business. Isn’t this a contradiction of sorts?

Not at all. The reason I’m saying ‘There’s no contradiction at all’ is that, this entire genomics industry is going to be based on knowledge.

And that particular knowledge at this point in time is not with the private sector. It is with the public sector because it was government of India which understood the importance of biotechnology, and made huge investments in creating diverse schools and diverse laboratories to create that knowledge base. We are reaping the benefits today.

For example, the kind of knowledge base the Centre for Biochemical Technology has created on its own premises… it just does not exist with any private sector company. And that is where the partnership comes in from.

What Nicholas Piramal is trying to do is to source that knowledge.So, rather than keeping that knowledge closeted in a publicly funded laboratory, what we are doing is opening up those doors to private companies so that together we can make rapid strides.

Although genomics is said to offer huge business potential for the Indian software industry, there doesn’t seem to be enthusiasm of the kind witnessed for Y2K projects. Is this a cause for concern?

Let me put it this way. As far as the current development of our information technology-based economy is concerned, it has not been really based on creating new products.

We have done lot of work for foreign companies which is not linked to generation of new knowledge. On the other hand, this new opportunity (genomics) that is coming up would mean that companies, in case they want to get into this, will have to invest in knowledge and innovation.

For example, in this area, if one wants to move in, then you will have to have people who understand not only, let us say, the information that keeps on coming on genome sequences, but basically genetics and issues associated with that.

That means, there is a need for creation of a special manpower that can be an interface between biology and information technology. It is only then that we will be able to advance.

You’ve said that Corporate India, which generally tends to ignore global-scale scientific breakthroughs, has for the first time reacted positively to the human genome sequencing news of June 26, and its implications. Please elaborate. Have corporates interacted with you on this?

As far as this advance is concerned, we did sign an agreement with Biological Advance. It was signed by the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad. The agreement has to do with gene chip and so on, but in the same knowledge domain.

In addition, there have been serious discussions with Satyam, NIIT, Infosys, Reliance. This means that those with interests in the information technology industry, have also moved in to this biotech field.

There are other pharma companies which have also evinced interest in forging tie-ups with us. GenoMed with Nicholas Piramal is the first collaborative venture we have signed.

I’m sure, as time passes by, there will be more such ventures.

The Indian ethos accords godly status to doctors and everything that has to do with healthcare. Pursuit of profit, if any, is frowned upon. Now healthcare is being increasingly talked of as much in terms of business and bottomlines as in terms of welfare. Genomics is an example. What does all this signify?

I look at it this way. Seventy per cent of Indian population does depend on our traditional systems of medicine like ayurveda, unani, homoeopathy. What is likely to happen in time to come is affluence will increase — this country is not going to remain perennially poor.

Today, we’ve 40 per cent of the people below the poverty line. But, I’ve a simple hypothesis — take two factors together.
One is that in 1980s, we had a 5.6 per cent GDP growth. And that was without reforms. With reforms, that 5.6 per cent could easily change to 8 to 9 per cent. I see no difficulty in that with reforms.

Along with that, if you consider the factor that the population growth has declined from 2.2 per cent to 1.7 per cent, you would realise that population is going to stablise by 2020 or 2025.

If you put these two together, economists will tell you that the number of people below the poverty line will shrink from 40 per cent to less than 15 per cent. Which means, to repeat, India is not going to remain perennially poor.

Similarly, the size of the middle class is also growing. Therefore, the affordability of medicine is not going to be what it is today; it is going to change. That is one issue.

The second issue is, there are also efforts to bring the old and the new together. Which means, we are trying to pick up clues from ayurveda to develop new drugs at different levels.

For example, the CSIR and Ayurveda Vaidhyashala have worked together to develop new molecules. We’ve got some spectacular clues in ulcer, diabetes and so on.

What does this mean? This means, the cost of development of new drugs, because of this new business-like approach to healthcare, is going to be much lower than the traditional western model which takes ten to 12 years and takes 400 to 500 million dollars.

If this cost is going to be low, then the advantage will be passed on to the consumer.

You mean modern pharma companies will increasingly harness traditional Indian health systems?

Indeed. In fact, you will find that the old mindset is changing for a number of reasons. The first factor is that because of the new intellectual property rights laws, which allow product patents latest by January 2005, the drugs and pharmaceutical industry is intensifying its research.

If you see the R&D spending of Nicholas Piramal, Ranbaxy, Dr Reddy’s Labs and others, you will find that it is going up from 1 per cent to 2 per cent to 3 per cent. Many companies have set the targets of reaching within the next five years at least 5 per cent.

So there is this growing awareness that in order to remain competitive, we can’t be copycats but we must also discover something.

Secondly, there is the scent of success also, because we always thought that it is only those people (foreigners) who will develop new molecules, we can’t.

But, suddenly, people are finding that we can do too, like Dr Reddy’s Labs which has developed an antibiotic technology. It has been licensing out the technology for a few million dollars to Novo Nordisk. More such examples are coming.

So, with confidence rising, companies feel that, ‘yes, there are possibilities of returns’. And, therefore, the new scenario is going to be essentially knowledge-based, innovation-based, research-based and development-based, rather than just reverse engineering because reverse engineering is not just going to pay.

How genuine or serious do you think are the concerns in India about the imminent WTO regime, biopiracy, patents?

We need to understand the whole thing in proper perspective. Look at biopiracy. It was the issue of turmeric patent and wound healing that the CSIR, my organisation, fought in 1996. We said then that this is our known knowledge. ‘You cannot patent it,’ we told the US patent office. That patent was revoked.

After that, the neem patent was revoked in the European patent office. After that, the Basmati patent, certain claims in that patent application of RiceTec. So, one after the other, you have seen successes. The net result of that has been that the US patent office itself has taken a note of the fact that their non-patent databases are weak.

In fact, I was the chairman of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO)’s SCIT, the Standing Committee on Information Technology. There are 171 nations in it. So I had a chance to interact With, both, the developing as well as the developed world.

It became very clear… the US patent office told me that when somebody applies for a turmeric patent, they go to their computerised databases, and key in *turmeric, wound, healing, powder*. The search doesn’t throw up any information. Nothing is shown on the computer screen because your knowledge is either in your head or is buried in some book.

The trick is to create electronic databases. What we are now doing is tackle the real disease because this is what happens otherwise — the lack of non-patent databases. The government is launching a major programme called Additional Knowledge Digital Library where all this knowledge will be retrieved, stored and made accessible.

So that next time the US patent officer gets an application for, say, a turmeric patent, he will consult our database and realise that knowledge belongs to India, that is an IPR, and, therefore, not patentable.

I believe that this fear of biopiracy must be converted into an adventure of biopartnership. Let’s not forget that bioresource-rich we may be, traditional knowledge-rich we may be, but the capital and technology exist in the West. They cannot do without us, we cannot do without them.

I believe the breaking of these barriers and clarity that has come are extremely important. Let me add that since I fought the turmeric battle, I look at it as a kind of a drop of a small stone in the pool and the kind of ripples it created, the waves that resulted, have helped focus attention on this issue.

Now the US patent office is saying, ‘We’ll treat traditional knowledge on par with industrial property systems as far as patents are concerned.’ Five years ago, that was not the case.

Genomics as a sunrise industry may be capital-intensive. Do you think financial institutions should adopt a proactive approach and fund such ventures?

Indeed. I feel that venture capital is going to be a key issue. If you see the growth of these companies in the US, you will find that it has been spectacular. Why has it been impressive? It all goes back to fundamentals and the presence of venture capitalists.

I’d say Apple, Intel, Microsoft or the knowledge-based industries would not have made it big but for the initial support of venture capitalists. So we can’t expect traditional banks with conventional thinking and no-risk attitude to support research of this particular kind.

Massive venture capital financing both from the domestic private sector and foreign institutional investors will make the difference. Let’s not forget that even the US, for example, was also slow till mid-70s until the mutual funds, insurance funds ploughed back a certain fraction of their money into this kind of industries. From millions, the figure quickly rose to billions.

I feel that kind of support is necessary in India today.

Do you think genomics will generate jobs?

I don’t think genome-based drugs and pharmaceutical industry will generate large employment. I look at it the other way round. If it is able to reach out to the Indian population in the manner that is proposed (by tackling areas like diabetes, hypertension, schizophrenia, etc), I do believe that medicine at an affordable cost will improve the productivity of the workforce.

If you look at other aspects like… based on ayurvedic practices, and the plant that has been used in experiments, we are getting clues to new molecules. That will generate employment. How? The medicinal plants will have to be grown in very large numbers. That sector has to be organised. They have to become the suppliers of these plants.

Based on that, the downstream industry extracts these molecules, creates new compositions, and new drugs, and then does the compounding, etc. So the whole range then becomes different. So in that area, there is an employment opportunity. Not in genomics per se.

You think it’s all right for India, which has been for long labeled an emerging market, a Third World country, to focus on genomics in a big way?

I think so. This is not only capital-intensive, but knowledge-intensive. And that knowledge comes in two forms. One, the knowledge and innovation that reside in the creativity of our researchers (whose levels are very high); two, the knowledge that arises from the huge genetic diversity and information that is available.

So when we talk in terms of the bio-click economy — that is a term I coined — then the content of knowledge is extraordinarily high although it may also be capital-intensive.

There may be certain sophisticated sequences that may be necessary. That is fine. Eventually, if you look at the final product, it is the content of knowledge that is going to dominate the final price and not what the contribution of that sequence is going to be.

To sum up, can genomics add to India’s riches?

Genomics won’t make India rich. But it will make India a healthier country, because the Indian problems of health will be addressed in the GenoMed programme. And the programme will be designed for the benefit of Indians.

For example, there is a drug that is banned in the US. There is a query as to whether it can work in India or not. It is genomics which is going to give that particular answer. These would be the more subtle issues that a programme like this will be able to address.

All that I would say is, there are several landmark achievements. The first one is that GeneQuest will be the first genomics-based company. Secondly, for the first time, I’m seeing a proactive approach and daring in the corporate world about scientific breakthroughs.

This (foray into genomics) is really an arrow into the future and based entirely on knowledge. Yet, the Piramals have taken this very bold step ahead of the rest of them (industrialists).

If this spirit of technology, entrepreneurship, daring, innovation is multiplied across the country, I see no reason why India should remain a rich country where poor people live. It will become a rich country where rich people live.