Published in The Hindu (3 Feb 2014)
Beyond the rhyming of the terms IT (Information Technology) and BT (Biotechnology), there can indeed be a valuable integration between the two — which is yet to be optimally exploited in the country. Many government departments deal with these sectors together, but essentially without any connection. IT, at least to start with, grew with initiatives in the private sector, whereas the growth of BT has been mostly due to government support. There was hype around BT at one stage to the extent that parents were prepared to pay expensive fees to get their children admitted to BT courses, only to find that their employment opportunities, unlike in the IT sector, did not hold much promise. The backlash led to such courses losing their sheen. There were not many industries to absorb the candidates, who were also found to be unemployable in terms of knowledge and training. However, the sector seems to have now stabilised and is on the growth path. The BT industry is growing at around 20 per cent which is quite significant in the context of a general industrial deceleration. The present turnover is estimated at $5 billion with a projection of $100 billion by 2025. The IT industry is valued at $100 billion with a projection of $300 billion by 2025. However, the scope of the BT sector is very large and can even eclipse the IT sector in terms of employment opportunities and reach to the economy and social sectors. The sector permeates health and disease, food and agriculture, environment and industry. A more appropriate strategy would be to integrate IT and BT seamlessly, wherever applicable, and aim for the $500 billion mark by 2025.
There is a fundamental difference between the two sectors in India. The IT/ITes (IT-enabled Services) industry has become a major growth engine for the country’s economy. It is stated that it contributes to around 5.6 per cent of GDP and direct employment to 2.3 million people and much more indirectly. The projection is to provide jobs to 20 million people by 2020. The main verticals utilising IT are BFSI (banking, financial services and insurance), telecom, manufacturing, media, construction and utilities, airlines and transportation, health services, etc. The fulcrum is services, be it IT or ITes/BPO (Business Process Outsourcing based on Internet) or engineering services. India is identified with software services and there is now an effort to generate products (software) and work out strategies for the global and internal markets. To remain competitive, strategies like cloud computing and Platform-BPO strategies are becoming the options. The weakest link is hardware, be it the IT or electronics sectors.
The limitations are raw material, technology and skilled human resource. Both raw material and technology need to be imported. Unlike the software industry, available human resource is not skilled enough to compete with the Asian giants in the field. Interestingly, BT is grounded in a hardware equivalent, be it vaccines or drugs, or diagnostics or monoclonal antibodies or agri-biotech or biomass-based products including the energy sector.
The establishment of the National Biotechnology Board in 1982 that led to the establishment of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) in 1986 by the government of India is primarily responsible for the growth of life sciences and biotechnology in the country. The initial phase of building competence in academia is now leading to resurgence in the industry. The best thing that could have happened is the starting of the schemes such as the Small Business Innovative Research Initiative (SBIRI) and the Biotechnology Industry Partnership Programme (BIPP) in the last seven or eight years.
More recently, all these initiatives, along with additional ones, have come under the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), a Section 25 company set up by the DBT. There are around 400 biotech companies in the country and the numbers are growing. BIRAC supports around 300 projects with loans and grants to around 180 companies. A positive development is the evolving strong academia-industry interaction and intellectual property rights (IPR) filing in these projects, that has already led to development of some innovative products. A few representative examples are JE/pneumococcal/rotaviral vaccines, follicle stimulating hormone for infertility treatment, a microPCR platform diagnostic kit for parasite/viral infections, integrated navigation and training platform for tumour ablation, and a software platform for using mobile phone to analyse blood glucose strips. The vaccine sector is growing very strongly with a potential for India to assume global leadership. As is the case with the drug sector, where generics (out of patent drugs) are our strength, the BT sector is dominated by Biosimilars (erythropoietin, growth factors, monoclonal antibodies, insulin, industrial enzymes, etc.) besides conventional and recombinant vaccines. The only product in agri-biotech is Bt cotton. Many indigenous molecular diagnostic kits have been developed. There is perceptible activity in terms of medical instrument development.
The integration of IT and BT will help India make a mark in the innovation space. New drug discovery is one such major area which will help India move beyond Generics/Biosimilars. Bioinformatics is one such area, which can help in drug design. Unfortunately, most IT professionals have very little appreciation of biology. There are a large number of steps that need to be taken before the molecule designed on the computer can become a drug. This needs a full appreciation of the biological/clinical aspects involved. But, with the evolution of systems biology (mathematical biology) and synthetic biology, an entirely new horizon is being made available to discover new drugs or do pathway engineering to design new microbial/plant products. This is, perhaps, the approach that would be needed to study brain function or evaluate biodiversity potential in nature.
An analysis of complex variables is needed for successful stem cell therapy or to understand cancer prognosis or evaluate QTL (Quantitative Trait Loci) in crops that govern yield, pest and drought resistance, etc. While BT can develop simple diagnostic tools, automation and telemedicine will be needed for village communities to reap the benefits. If stethoscopes can become outdated, the day is not far off when portable ECG and MRI machines can reach the bedside. IT and BT need to integrate to streamline the manufacturing process of biotech products. We need integrated manpower, since skilled human resource is scarce in the area. The need of the hour is the evolution of IT (Dry lab) and BT (Wet lab) integrated companies in the areas of health, agriculture and industrial products.
[Written by – G. Padmanaban is INSA senior scientist, Department of Biochemistry, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.]