Essential for India to develop an innovation ecosystem that can generate multi-million dollar businesses
By Nisha Holla & Taslimarif Saiyed
How a country invests in scientific and technological development is a critical driver of its socio-economic growth. The US, China and other major economies have demonstrated this. India has been on a fantastic growth trajectory since economic liberalisation in 1991. Our country is shifting sights from meeting the needs of its billion+ population to nation-building and reaching an ambitious economic goal of $5 trillion by 2025. Now we must invest in our innovation engines with a long-term view.
In India, startups and innovators productising new research are driving the next wave of innovation. The role of innovation hubs that bring together entrepreneurship, industry, capital, and research have never been more essential. Large economies all have exceptional innovation ecosystems like the San Francisco Bay Area and China’s High-Tech Development Zones. They are an amalgamation of highly specialised talent, research from top-tier universities, large pools of investable capital, access to market leaders, an incentive system for entrepreneurs, and a promising market to capture. India must actively construct and nurture its own hubs to prime such ecosystems for itself.
During the 2019 elections, the NDA announced that it endeavoured to facilitate the establishment of 50,000 new startups by 2024, creation of 100 innovation zones, and 500 incubator/accelerators. The government can crank the flywheel by accelerating its well-established innovation hubs and enhancing their capabilities. In the field of life sciences, Department of Biotechnology-BIRAC has already set up the first hubs to support early-stage bio-entrepreneurship. One such hub, which has validated this approach, is the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms (C-CAMP) in Bengaluru.
Bengaluru has a unique superposition of industry and fundamental research which forms the bedrock for its growing deep science ecosystem. Since its inception in 2009, C-CAMP is deeply embedded in the city’s world-class scientific environment of academia (NCBS, IISc, and several others), and top biotech companies (Biocon, Jubilant, and others). It has also served as the deployment vehicle of new policy initiatives such as BIG, AIM, and NBEC with central Government ministries, and K-Tech, and Agri-innovation CoE with GoK. Designed and helmed by scientists, C-CAMP’s DNA is rooted in scientific rigour and attuned to the needs of scientist-entrepreneurs. It has meticulously built a platform for bio-innovators to incubate ideas, conduct world-class research, and launch products. C-CAMP is intimately connected with 1000+ bio-startups across India.
Many of India’s most successful life sciences startups—Bugworks, Sea6 Energy, Theramyt, Pandorum, Eyestem, Coeo, Module, String Bio, Aten Porous, and others—have emerged from this innovation ecosystem. They are growing very fast and expanding rapidly into domestic as well as global markets. Now that we have a winning strategy that supports early innovation, how do we enable these winners to scale up? Further, what is the best investment we can make today that will continue generating world-class innovation out of India in the decades to come?
Expansion is key
Centres like C-CAMP have already amassed state-of-the-art research facilities, technical know-how, and expertise under one roof. Several Government ministries have worked hard with these centres for a decade to perfect this strategy. The time is ripe for further expansion.
Critical mass of specialised talent: India must not let down its top innovation talent for want of capacity. One of the most significant resources for deep science innovation is a critical mass of intelligent scientists who help each other solve problems with converging skill sets. This is Silicon Valley’s prime driver. At C-CAMP as well, incubates find that their neighbours in the C-CAMP-NCBS-InStem ecosystem are extremely valuable. Enabling such critical mass build-ups will help India create science powerhouses.
Academic-entrepreneurs: Innovation hubs sit in a critical junction to support academicians, making a move into productisation. C-CAMP supports several due to its unique position. Today, many promising researchers go abroad in search of well-facilitated ecosystems. Instead, they can be incentivised to conduct and productise their research at world-class innovation hubs in India itself.
Scale-up space: As successful startups scale into production and high-volume manufacturing, they need space to expand their operations. Crucially, they must remain connected to the scientific backbone that hubs like C-CAMP provide to innovate and improve their products and services continuously. Scale-up space around the centres will enable proven winners to grow faster.
Global partnerships: A key strategy of innovation hubs has been global partnerships. For example, C-CAMP partners with some of the world’s top life sciences ecosystems like QB3 in the SF Bay Area, and Roslin Institute in Edinburgh. It is the only Asian innovation hub to partner with CARB-X to combat antimicrobial resistance. Innovation hubs serve as valuable two-way conduits for global innovators to collaborate with Indians and vice-versa, opening up access to new markets and strategies.
Focus on quality and quantity: With all the advantages existing innovation hubs bring to the table, policymakers must approach investment in innovation hubs at two levels:
a) Building the proposed 500 new hubs in phases, based on assessment and requirement
b) Deepening the capacity of well-established centres with proven track-record and potential to be global-impact hubs
The latter can quickly position India amongst the top five destinations for life sciences (and other) innovation.
Undoubtedly, innovation is an influential contributor to economic growth. We already see the tremendous impact our startups have on the economy. With India’s sights on reaching $5 trillion by 2025 and $10 trillion by 2030, developing an innovation ecosystem that can generate multiple multi-million dollar businesses is essential.
Holla is technology Fellow, and Saiyed, CEO and director, C-CAMP. Views are personal