The great Indian bioeconomy: C-CAMP CEO on biotech startups and societal impact

Science for globally competitive entrepreneurship, and science for social impact—Taslimarif Saiyed, CEO and Director, C-CAMP, speaks on how a bioeconomy boost will contribute to the $5-trillion target of the Indian economy.
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When pharmaceutical giant Cipla agreed to acquire a 21.05 percent stake in Achira Labs last month, it came as a major validation for the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms, or C-CAMP, a premier innovation incubator supported by the Union government’s Department of Biotechnology.

“When it was at the idea level, we had funded them for novel microfluidics-based diagnostics; products that they wanted to build at that time,” says Taslimarif Saiyed, CEO and Director at C-CAMP. “Achira Labs demonstrates the growth of a startup where a company as big as Cipla takes equity stake in that; this is clearly a big success.”

While C-CAMP has come to be widely recognised as a catalyst for cutting-edge research in the life sciences, it has evolved from supporting scientific ideas to fuel entrepreneurship to also leveraging the potential of scientific innovation for social impact. Till date, C-CAMP has supported more than 100 startups through funding, bio-incubation, and mentorship.

“Since 2009, we have been attempting to identify deep-science ideas and help nurture them to the next level of innovation. Now more so from a societal impact point of view,” Taslimarif says in an interview with YourStory. “While entrepreneurial success is very important, we have realised that in a country like India, innovation and scientific technology can make a huge social difference.” 

A flourishing bioeconomy

C-CAMP is looking at helping accelerate the Indian economy towards reaching its $5-trillion target by 2026, Taslimarif says. “I think it’s a collective vision at the national level, where we are hoping to build a bioeconomy [for] India.”

Each sector of India’s bioeconomy has flourished over the past decade, he adds. “The important part is that this… knowledge-based economy is bound to grow. The outcome of that work will actually be highly relevant to society as well.” 

Over the years, C-CAMP has been a mentor to some game-changing biotech startups: Pandorum Technologies (in the field of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine); Bugworks (developing a novel class of antibiotics to tackle the problem of antimicrobial resistance); and Coeo Labs (working on preventing risk of ventilator associated pneumonia), among others.

There are some up-and-coming players as well that are reimagining the space of agriculture and cleantech. 

Case in point: Sea6 Energy is a bio-energy company developing end-to-end solutions to replace fossil fuels in agriculture. It is geared towards developing low-cost, large-scale cultivation of red seaweed on the ocean. 

Another Bengaluru-based startup, String Bio, works at the interface of biology, chemistry and engineering,  leveraging its integrated methane platform to deliver methane from wastes and natural resources using engineered microorganisms. On July 11, String Bio revealed raising $20 million in a Series B round from investors including Ankur Capital, Dare Ventures, Redstart, Zenfold Ventures, and Woodside Energy.

One of the resident C-CAMP incubatees, Eyestem, which uses stem cell and gene editing technologies to create breakthrough therapies for degenerative diseases of the eye, has raised an undisclosed sum from investors including Endiya Partners, Kotak Private Equity, besides backers from Switzerland and South Africa. 

But more than the funding, the use case is more important because of the impact, says Taslimarif. 

"While entrepreneurial success is very important, we have realised that in a country like India, innovation and scientific technology can make a huge social difference."— Taslimarif Saiyed, CEO and Director, C-CAMP

“India doesn’t have stories on science making Series B, C or D funding,” he says. “Science-based enterprises have to be globally competitive, they cannot be competitive in a regional market like other sectors simply because the science-based market is very open without borders. And unless you are the best you will not get any business.”

Some of the burgeoning fields of innovation in this space include rare diseases, nutrition, cleantech, and regenerative therapy, and critical areas such as maternal and child health, geriatrics, and antimicrobial resistance. 

“Recently, we deployed a company called Spot Cents, which is developing saliva-based biomarkers for neonatal sepsis. It is a very difficult disease condition to build diagnostics for,” Taslimarif says. “They [now] have a saliva-based biomarker, which we have supported for over six years. It would have a huge impact on kids.”

Alongside entrepreneurial acceleration, these efforts are also aimed at serving underserved populations and easing barriers to accessing quality public health care for a majority of the population. 

“This is where technology can make a huge difference. We have several initiatives and solution-centric models that can fit very well at primary health care centres, and provide the kind of services that are possibly only available in tertiary care hospitals, such as ultrasounds and radiology.”

Public and individual health

For C-CAMP, ensuring that its scientific solutions also cut into terrains of public and individual health that often are not part of the mainstream discourse, is aligned with its larger goal of impacting societal health and progress. 

“We have identified areas that we want to target but that requires a little bit of homework at our end to understand the need, because if you don’t understand the need you can’t solve anything,” says Taslimarif.  

“To give an example, we realise that mental health aspects are crucial when we are looking at many things together. There are several societal taboos in terms of health. We are keenly pushing innovations that can address these less-discussed and neglected components of societal health, including mental health, developmental disorders, and aspects related to individual health.”

Edited by Feroze Jamal