[TechSparks 2020] Beyond COVID-19: how biotech entrepreneurs in the healthcare sector are preparing for the future
One virus, SARS-CoV-2, has not only led to a pandemic but has drawn curtains on our normal social life and has changed the ways of human behaviour. The outbreak has made us realise the importance and the need for biotech innovation in India.
Understanding the behaviour of microorganisms, building tools, predicting the future possibilities of such crises, innovation, and research needed to understand and strengthen healthcare has now become the utmost priority for the entire world.
Bengaluru-based bioscience incubator, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms (C-CAMP) under the Department of Biotechnology, has been at the forefront of supporting, guiding, and nurturing biotech entrepreneurs to bring new technological innovation to improve healthcare.
While speaking at the 11th edition of YourStory’s flagship event TechSparks 2020, Dr Taslimarif Saiyed, CEO and Director of C-CAMP, said, “When the pandemic started, we were largely unequipped, and today, we have several products and innovations used in saving people’s lives.”
Now, innovators need to think beyond COVID-19 to come up with solutions for other expected future health crises to avoid going through the unprecedented times that humanity is currently facing.
Dr Taslimarif Saiyed, CEO and Director of C-CAMP, said that India was largely unequipped when the pandemic started but now several products and innovations have been developed and are being used for saving people’s lives.
While humanity is now worried about the COVID-19 pandemic, issues related to ‘antimicrobial resistance’ (AMR) have been silently plaguing the world. AMR is a situation in which microorganisms such as bacteria, virus, fungi, etc., develop resistance towards antibiotics and drugs used to kill them, thereby leaving no option for treatment.
Bengaluru-based Bugworks is focused on developing antibiotics, which can fight the ‘superbugs.’ Presently, the startup is focused on anti-bacterial infections and would eventually also work on anti-viral infections.
While addressing the audience virtually, Dr Anand Anandkumar, Co-Founder and CEO of Bugworks, said that with support from C-CAMP, the startup is focused towards building drugs for serious anti-bacterial infections for the first time in 50 years — from India for the world.
“Millions of people silently lose their lives due to superbug infections. Around 2.5 lakh Indians die every year. We are aimed towards becoming a pandemic preparedness company, offering solutions for novel anti-bacterial and anti-viral infections,” Dr Anand says.
On the other hand, Dr Ezhil Subbian’s String Bio is aimed at developing clean, hygienic, and non-carbon proteins by using methane to ensure proper protein feed for animals is brought into the human food chain.
She explains that COVID-19 is a disease which most probably came from bats, and jumped from animals to humans. Thus, it is important to keep a trace on the source of food production and ensure it is clean and safe to avoid diseases. Apart from this, it is also helping to reduce methane — a greenhouse gas — from the atmosphere by fermenting and turning it into protein. This not only ensures a clean protein but also a cleaner environment.
“We need to increase our food production by 70 percent for the next 30 years, and we, at String Bio, want to bring food into the market which is clean, traceable, and sustainable," says Dr Ezhil, CEO of String Bio.
Retrofitting solutions for COVID-19
C-CAMP incubated startups have also taken upon themselves to retrofit their research, products, and solutions to solve the COVID-19 crisis. For instance, Coeo Labs — which is aimed at saving babies from respiratory illnesses — has repurposed its technology to help COVID-19 patients.
Coeo Labs, which has developed Saans — a neonatal CPAP machine, to provide breathing support to babies with respiratory diseases, has repurposed the same technology to develop Saans Pro to provide non-invasive breathing support to adults and COVID-19 patients.
“Data says that 50 percent of COVID-19 deaths can be avoided if the patients are provided with non-invasive ventilation in time. The idea of the non-invasive breathing support is to manage the oxygen levels in the patients as much as possible without putting them on a ventilator,” says Nitesh Kumar Jangir, Co-founder of Coeo Labs.
Meanwhile, Equine Biotech, which is involved in genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics solutions for the diagnosis of infectious diseases, came up with an RT-PCR kit for faster and efficient COVID-19 testing.
Similarly, C-CAMP supported Eyestem is aimed at developing a global and scalable cell therapy platform for treating incurable and rare diseases. The term ‘rare diseases’ are used to indicate diseases that affect a very small percentage of the population, but in a country as populous as India, it translates to lakhs of patients.
“A rare disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) is not rare in India. It affects almost 15 lakh children in the country, who loose vision by the time they reach 25 years of age. Cell therapy treatments for such diseases are so costly that it eliminates the bottom 99.99 percent of the world’s population because one injection is priced at $250,000. This means for patients with the disease affecting both the eyes will need to pay half-a-million-dollar for two injections. If you opt for the Novartis therapies in India, then one injection can cost Rs 2 crore. This is not sustainable, and so we started Eyestem to make cell therapy affordable,” said Dr Jogin Desai, Founder and CEO of Eyestem.
The startup is also building a platform that can be used by stem cell researchers to create organ cells such as for liver, or lung, or eyes, etc. Amidst COVID-19 outbreak, the startup has collaborated with CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, and is now testing a cell therapy procedure for developing lung cells to fight the disease.
TechSparks - YourStory's annual flagship event - has been India's largest and most important technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship summit for over a decade, bringing together entrepreneurs, policymakers, technologists, investors, mentors, and business leaders for stories, conversations, collaborations, and connections that matter. As TechSparks 2020 goes all virtual and global in its 11th edition, we want to thank you for the tremendous support we've received from all of you throughout our journey and give a huge shoutout to our sponsors of TechSparks 2020.