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Biotech\'s unlikely hero is the government: Forbes India

Biotech\'s unlikely hero: The government

By Harichandan Arakali Forbes India Staff Published: May 2, 2018

This February, Oraxion Therapeutics Inc, a spin-off from Bengaluru’s Aten Porus Lifesciences, announced its agreement with an unnamed US-based biopharmaceutical company under which it would give the American partner exclusive options to license Oraxion’s lead drug ORX-301 for the treatment of two rare diseases called Niemann-Pick Type C disorder, and Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis. Arun B Papaiah and Aditya Kulkarni, founders of Oraxion Therapeutics, told Forbes India that total payments could be as high as $125 million, in addition to royalties and sales milestone payments.

What, however, stood out was their acknowledgement of support from a quarter that is not usually associated with deep science-based entrepreneurial success: “We would also like to acknowledge the support from the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), an initiative of the department of biotechnology (DBT), government of India, for initial grant support for our work,” they wrote in a press release.

Government departments in India are often seen as stodgy, and are not associated readily with innovation. DBT, however, epitomises what a modest start and decades of persistence can achieve.

The department was set up more than 30 years ago, in 1986, and primarily focussed on building capacity in academia across multiple universities and research organisations. It has supported more than 5,000 scientists in over 100 universities and laboratories with research grants, physical infrastructure, funds for equipment and so on, and in the last 10 years, has increasingly engaged with industry.

“We felt that while we were strongly supporting academic research, we also needed to bring in the industry, because only then the picture gets complete,” says Renu Swarup, secretary, DBT. This resulted in the formation of BIRAC in 2007 in partnership with private industry; in 2009, it was converted into a public sector entity.

Through BIRAC and other schemes, the DBT has created a slew of grants—such as the Biotech Ignition Grant—to encourage both research within the industry, and the translation of academic research into commercial ventures. Ventures such as Aten Porus became direct beneficiaries.

The early grants from DBT—?50 lakh in 2015 under the Biotech Ignition Grant scheme, and ?50 lakh in 2016 under the small business innovation research initiative—made an important difference in the early stage of the venture which was started in April 2014, recall Papaiah and Kulkarni.

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(This story appears in the 11 May, 2018 issue of Forbes India.