N Venkat, Co-Founder and CEO of Vyome Lifesciences: How can India become a hotbed of life sciences innovation?
Entrepreneurial researchers and business leaders with the active support of new-age investors are required to sow the seeds of innovative drug discovery and development in India
October 9th, 2015
Novel drug discovery and development is still in its infancy in India, and Indian-based companies usually don’t have the financial muscle to compete with the well-known international pharmaceutical giants. However, there are tremendous cost benefits to drug development in India and large companies have started investing up to 10% of their revenues into research and development. But, large companies are not known for their agility and speed. Moreover, the culture in large organizations doesn’t promote the entrepreneurial spirit that’s required for innovation.
These observations may lead one to conclude that it’s a startup which provides the right environment for the fostering of new ideas and the discovery of new molecules. This idea gains validation from the fact that global biopharma giants have been externalizing more of their R&D with over half of late-stage pipeline compounds now being externally sourced.
Access to capital, business and scientific leadership along with market opportunities are the three vital ingredients of an ecosystem that encourages start-ups. While markets exist, none of the other components are particularly mature in India. Moreover, the business environment has historically been uncertain and challenging for biopharmaceutical start-ups due to low levels of intellectual property protection and delays in receiving clinical trials approval. This is a problem which requires government intervention and we hope that the new regime will address this issue. The recent launch of the BIRAC AcE Fund aimed at promoting biotech entrepreneurship seems to suggest that things are looking up.
Early stage investments into drug discovery are usually not considered attractive because of high degrees of uncertainty and relatively long exit periods. The first problem can be addressed by creating portfolios of assets instead of investing in standalone projects. Ensuring capital and operational efficiency also help in ensuring returns. Fund managers who wear the battle scars of operational experience in drug development companies can add a lot of value to these early stage companies.
The problem of long investment windows can be solved by reducing the time it takes to assemble a portfolio. Venture capitalists, being generalists, lack the depth of knowledge to judge and select the right assets. Thus, there is demand for specialist agents who can conduct diligence and present investors with pre-assembled asset portfolios to choose from. Moreover, investments into and adoption of technology platforms which help validate the efficacy and safety of early stage drugs will help identify the right candidates for investment.
Even with all of the above systems in place, investors will have to understand that drug discovery is a long stepwise process. There are no early exits, patience and continuous support is the name of the game. The entrepreneurship ecosystem will bloom only once the academia is assured of sustained support from investors. Without that, it will be difficult to motivate doctorates away from plush research positions abroad. Times seem to be changing for the better with starting-up becoming a mainstream career choice and investors beginning to look beyond traditional internet businesses.
Experienced leadership is the necessary ingredient for a successful drug discovery process. Good leaders can connect research with the marketplace and help in the commercialization of innovation. While scientific acumen is necessary for any innovation, it’s business prowess that makes a product out of an idea.
Great leadership has made Vyome’s journey in the drug discovery space productive in a short span of time. Our top leadership comprises of both scientists and industry veterans. Our co-founder, Dr. Shiladitya Sengupta, is one of those rare breed of scientists who combine scietific prowess with the ability to strategise. We have also on-boarded professionals who have deep understanding of our target market – the US.
It’s this leadership that gives direction to our research efforts. Research for research’s sake can be rather futile. Energies need to be focused on opportunities where returns are attractive and reasonably assured. To cite Vyome’s example, our focus on dermatology is strategic—the domain has seen little innovation in recent decades so there is plenty of scope to harness recent advances in science to design more effective solutions. We peg the current size of the dermatology and anti-infectives market at $70 billion. US alone accounts for about 60 to 70 per cent of the global market. The US drug-resistant acne market alone, which our lead product VB 1953 targets, is worth $3 billion.
As support institutions mature and the entrepreneurial spirit is unleashed among India’s youth, the times seem to be ripe for innovations in bio pharmacy. We’re breaking the mould and setting the necessary precedents. We hope to inspire many more to do so.