India’s BIRAC drives innovation in disease control with global agencies

As COVID-19 disrupts economies around the world, India too is working on a vaccine to counter the deadly disease. The Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), which turns eight in March 2020, is one of the key enablers driving strategies on this front, with its rich legacy in developing biotech innovations for disease control and healthcare challenges along with international research funding agencies

March 18, 2020

Among India’s efforts to build a vaccine for COVID-19, the US$43.7 million Ind-CEPI Mission program has invited proposals to develop a proven vaccine against coronavirus

One of the world’s largest private foundations, the Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) has been BIRAC’s leading international partner

In partnership with BIRAC, Wellcome Trust UK already funds 21 translational research projects in India under an initiative called the Affordable Healthcare in India

BIRAC has teamed up with one more UK based innovation fund, Nesta, to create a pipeline of innovators working on diagnostics for antimicrobial resistance

A hectic race is on across the world to develop vaccines to counter the pandemic caused by the novel-Coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, which has led to the death of over 42,000 people between December 2019 and March 2020. In India, the contagion has affected more than 1,250 people (as of March-end) and the country has gone into a massive lockdown to stem the spread of the disease.

Among India’s multiple strategic efforts to build a vaccine for COVID-19, the prestigious US$43.7 million Ind-CEPI Mission program, a global collaborative initiative established by the Central government last March, has invited proposals from companies to rapidly develop and manufacture a proven vaccine to fight coronavirus. Eligibility criteria to apply to this grant include large-scale manufacturing capabilities and the willingness to transfer their vaccine technology to a global network.

The Ind-CEPI Mission happens to be the India chapter of the global Oslo-based Coalition of Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), founded in Davos in 2017 by Norway and India, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome Trust, UK, and the World Economic Forum.

This world-wide project has been established to accelerate the development of vaccines against emerging infectious diseases and enable equitable access to these vaccines during an outbreak. The Ind-CEPI Mission program is turning out to be useful today for India, which is focussed on driving strategies to create affordable diagnostics and vaccines against the coronavirus.

Systematic government support, strong entrepreneur culture, and facilitators like BIRAC establish India as a preferred partner for international collaborations in the biotechnology sector

The Ind-CEPI Mission is being implemented in India by the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), a government interface agency, which empowers Indian biotech firms and start-ups to undertake strategic research and innovation to solve the country’s unique health challenges.

Celebrating its eighth anniversary this March, BIRAC, which falls under the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), has become a key enabler in the country’s strategic efforts to fund, research and source a cure for the killer coronavirus. (DBT and BIRAC have sought many more proposals besides the Ind-CEPI Mission one to research and fund a vaccine for coronavirus such as The COVID -19 Research Consortium, for example)

Augmenting R&D in India

In the 1980s, the Indian government and science policy-makers realized the growth potential of the country’s biotechnology sector to deliver valuable and affordable solutions for unique health challenges. This has spurred public investments first in academia for basic research, which has now expanded to include translational research and development and the entire innovation ecosystem. India is known worldwide for its ‘penchant for frugality and support for innovation.’

Due to systematic government support for the biotechnology sector, a robust ecosystem with bio-clusters, strong entrepreneur culture and facilitators like BIRAC, has improved India’s capabilities and a preferred partner for all international collaborations in biotechnology, says Renu Swarup, managing director of BIRAC in a 2018 article aptly titled, Biotech Nation, Support for Innovators heralds a New India.

Since its inception, BIRAC has been playing a transformative and catalytic role in building the US$51 billion Indian biotech industry. It has created incubation facilities, mentor groups, and funded innovations from the research idea to proof of concept, to scaling up and launching successful products in the market.

The agency has been responsible for 175 IPs, has commercialized 140 products and supported 15,000 scientists and 5,000 skilled research manpower. A major share of this support has been to assist in the development of biosimilars, vaccines/clinical trials, bioinformatics and related infrastructure development. And, it is not surprising that BIRAC is at the forefront today driving India’s fight against the coronavirus, considering its rich legacy in supporting and funding a plethora of path-breaking biotech innovations with global funding and researching agencies.

Partnership-driven innovation

One of the world’s largest private foundations, the Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) has been BIRAC’s long-standing and important partner. An effective collaborative effort with BMGF has been the flagship Grand Challenges India program – which invites out-of-the-box ideas from the industry, entrepreneurs, scientific community and world-class researchers to address issues plaguing India such as infectious diseases, child and maternal health, geriatric care and sanitation.

BIRAC and BMGF, which provide financial, technical and administrative support for the winning ideas, first offer a problem statement with a social impact that needs to be solved. For example, one of the first two calls issued by Grand Challenges India (GCI) was for proposals to “Reinvent the Toilet.” And, as an example, one of the Reinvent the Toilet grantees, the well-established private Indian university, BITS Pilani developed a septic tank, which is in a pilot testing stage in preparation for scale-up. Run-on photovoltaic power, the system uses electricity to change the pH levels in the effluent, killing pathogens.

The GCI website reveals that BMGF along with BIRAC and DBT has funded 47 innovations to the tune of US$ 24.05 million since 2013 when the first challenge was flagged off. The innovations include a portable brain scanner for neonates; novel approaches to detect zinc malnutrition in rural women; a mobile-based application to monitor and ensure vaccinations of all newborns; a solution to streamline data systems in India for immunization etc.

BMGF and BIRAC also run the Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE) flagged off in 2015, along with India’s science park and incubator, IKP-Knowledge Park. 19 innovative ideas have been supported so far under this program with the singular purpose of devising novel and cost-efficient medical technology devices, diagnostics and technology-enabled services to improve the lives of people. 

Some projects supported by GCE-India include a project by the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru to design a novel biomaterial for a new bladder for cancer patients; Bengaluru-based Sattwa MedTech Private Ltd, a medical diagnostics equipment company which is developing a next-gen fetal monitoring tool; a project by a Punjab company to devise a rapid diagnostic test to detect bacterial infections; an Expert Support System to help mental health professionals and many more. 

The grantees get US$66,470 award from BIRAC and BMGF, an additional US$13,294 upon successful completion of milestones besides technical and business strategy advice, access to synergistic networks of DBT, BIRAC, BMGF, IKP, and their partners and opportunity for Phase II funding of up to US$ 1 Million. To date, GCE has supported nearly 16 innovations with US$1.4 million.

BIRAC’s global collaborations

Unarguably, India continues to be the best testbed for scaling disruptive healthcare innovations due to a rapidly growing start-up ecosystem, technology strength and government’s commitment to universal health coverage. Many research and funding agencies see value in partnering with India in this space. 

Last year in March, India approved a new five-year phase of the collaboration between DBT and the UK-based global charity organisation, Wellcome Trust, known as the India Alliance. In partnership with BIRAC, Wellcome Trust already funds 21 translational research projects in India under an initiative called the Affordable Healthcare in India. BIRAC manages these projects in India for the Trust.

Sample some projects funded by this partnership: the development and use of new biocompatible materials for stem-cell-based therapy to restore eyesight by the reputed Hyderabad-based LV Prasad Eye Institute in partnership with Sheffield University; Cadila Pharmaceuticals Ltd’s combination pill to control the cardiovascular disease which is undergoing a Phase III clinical trial; the prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) work on a preliminary prototype of a chest compression device for cardiac arrest patients and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi’s Smart Cane, a navigation and mobility aid for visually challenged people. Wellcome Trust too joined the GCI program as a partner in 2016.

BIRAC has teamed up with another UK based innovation fund, NESTA to create a pipeline of innovators working on diagnostics for antimicrobial resistance. According to senior scientists, India has one of the highest rates of antibiotic resistance in the world and a rapid diagnostic test that can help Indian doctors to select the right antibiotic at the right time is a major requirement and is a big concern for the government.

Recently, Indian companies have shown a lot of enthusiasm to compete for Nesta’s Longitude Prize, a global challenge with an £8 million payout. 21 teams from India are competing for this prize, which has 78 participants from 14 countries.

Meanwhile, BIRAC, who is supporting the Indian participants sponsored the Boost Grants last year, which was bagged by three Indian teams after a competitive pitch. The Boost Grant awardees, who won £100,00 each, will be completely supported by BIRAC to help them compete for the Longitude Prize. These teams are the Pune-based Module Innovations, whose credit card size test detects four major pathogens in a single test; the NanoDx team, which has developed a test to detect bacterial infections in less than 10 minutes and the Bengaluru-based OmiX and Spotsense, who is developing a non-invasive diagnostic test using salivary markers.

BIRAC leverages its existing strategic tie-ups with other prominent global agencies as well to find solutions for India’s healthcare challenges. For example, it is working with USAID to fight the scourge of TB, Vinnova (The Agency for Innovation Systems), Government of Sweden, France, and Finland to provide grant funding to implement collaborative health research projects.

Accelerating new-age innovations 

To boost new-age innovations, in November 2019, BIRAC joined hands with United Nation’s Health Innovation Exchange (UNHIE) and Social Alpha, a non-profit start-up incubator funded by the Tata Trusts, to conceive a unique India Accelerator Platform, which aspires to support 100 innovations in medical devices, diagnostics and digital health solutions in the next five years. The platform will help Indian Innovators to get exposure and leverage international multilateral and UN mechanisms to fund and scale their innovation globally.

BIRAC continues to attract and facilitate global investor support to achieve its mission of nurturing Make in India solutions for India and the world. With new serious health challenges emerging on the horizon, and India’s growing strength in scientific and technological innovations, it is the need of the hour. 

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