This biotech startup is proving to be a key player in treating neglected diseases
According to a report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), malaria kills more than one million people every year, and tuberculosis (TB) epidemic kills about two million people each year globally. Similar to these diseases, the novel coronavirus, which is a respiratory pathogen, is one in a series of pathogens that need to be contained.
To fight these rising pathogens in the developing world, Shridhar Narayanan and RK Shandil started the Foundation for Neglected Disease Research (FNDR) in 2014. The Bengaluru-based startup is dedicated to drug discovery and diagnostics research in the field of neglected diseases.
“With the rise of drug resistant pathogens, there is a need for new effective drugs, diagnostics, and devices for infectious diseases like TB, malaria, and other Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs), which are relevant to a developing world where affordability is a problem and medical need is high. This is what we are going after,” says Shridhar.
R K Shandil
The co-founders, both PhD holders, met while working at AstraZeneca in Bengaluru. After the Bengaluru site of AstraZeneca shut operations, they wanted to utilise their expertise and continue their research, and do something that was socially relevant to India. The startup currently has a 30 member team of scientists.
According to the founders, FNDR has a unique model – it is a private not-for-profit R&D organisation dedicated to doing drug discovery and developing diagnostics and devices in areas of anti-microbial resistance (AMR) tuberculosis, malaria, and other neglected tropical diseases.
“While there are many companies working on devices and diagnostics for some of these problems, there are no private companies working on NTDs. We work closely with both public and private partners to co-develop some of these novel solutions,” says Shridhar.
The startup is known for its novel solutions, which are affordable and easily deployable on the field. Some of the solutions provided by the startup include drug, device, and a diagnostic product.
FNDR’s drugs aim to be best-in-class molecules, which will shorten the therapy and have lesser side effects. Its diagnostics and devices are intended to be affordable point of care solutions, which will enable timely diagnosis and disease appropriate treatments.
Support and funding
FNDR got initial support from AstraZeneca, which provided it with a donation to set up the organisation. This was a result of a strong proposal with scientific merit and an excellent track record of the co-founders.
The co-founders worked without salary for two years and they invested their personal money – approximately Rs 50 lakh– to build a pipeline of products over the past two years.
It has also received grant support from various government agencies such as BIRAC and Department of Biotechnology. This has enabled the startup to conduct high quality scientific research and contribute to the development of new drugs, diagnostics, and devices.
FNDR has also made numerous partnerships with both national and international organisations for research collaborations or service contracts. The total funding from these partnerships has been in excess of $1 million. Some of its partners have also invested in the development of its assets in the excess of $10 million.
Challenges and recognition
“The biggest challenge was in obtaining regulatory permissions and government clearances for receiving foreign funds and setting up a biosafety level 3 laboratory. We are a not-for-profit company, which generates income through donations, competitive grants, and services for research activities,” says Shridhar.
The most difficult cross border transaction for the startup was getting the Foreign Contribution and Regulation Act (FCRA) permission to receive donation from outside India. It took about two years to get the permission.
Due to its contribution, FNDR was chosen as one of the top 50 Economic Times Power of Ideas startups in 2017. It was also awarded the UK-NESTA Longitude Discovery Award for its innovative AMR diagnostic.
The startup has also collaborate with Global Alliance for TB, New York; Medicines for Malaria Ventures, Switzerland; and Bill and Melinda Gates Medical Research Institute. National partners include NCPOR, InSTEM (DBT institute), ICGEB (DBT institute), IISc, NCBS, C-CAMP, NIO (CSIR), Anthem Biosciences Pvt Ltd, SASTRA University, and Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT).
FNDR generated Rs 5 crore in FY-18-19. It works closely with the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms (C-CAMP)in Bengaluru, and is similar to companies like Bugworks. The only difference is that it provides R&D services to global companies and institutions.
According to FNDR, its lead drug candidate has just started Phase 2 human testing for the treatment of tuberculosis. They expect to complete the trial in the next 12 to 18 months, and intend to progress three of their lead pre-clinical assets in tuberculosis, malaria, and leishmania into IND enabling studies, which will allow them to start human testing within the next 18 months.
“We also aim to complete pivotal clinical trials, which will enable us to apply for regulatory approval for three of our diagnostic products and devices within the next 18 months. We will continue developing our early-stage assets for dengue, AMR infections, and waste-water management,” says Shridhar.
“Our USP is novel solutions, which are affordable and easily deployable on the field. These solutions can be a new drug, device, or a diagnostic product,” says Shridhar.