Transformation Protocol Is The Key To Revitalising Agriculture

New Delhi: | Updated: Nov 10 2003, 05:30am hrs
It was not conventional by any stretch of imagination. In the late 90s, a biotech scientist and an entrepreneur, Dr Villoo Morawala Patell, managed to raise $2 million as venture fund, to kickstart a dream company. That was not exactly the time when VCs opened their purse-strings for the biotech sector so easily. In fact, even now, venture capitalists are not too attracted to this sector, mainly because of the long-term projects in biotech. Anyway, for Dr Patell, the $2-million fund meant an immediate switch from her academic research-oriented career to that of a business woman. She founded Avestha Gengraine Technologies Pvt Ltd, better known as Avesthagen, and became its CEO.

Theres hardly been any looking back for Dr Patell or Avesthagen, after that. Her back-to-back meetings and hectic travel schedule are perhaps a pointer towards that. When eFE asked Dr Patell what Avesthagens role has been in the Indian agri-biotech sector, her reply was without any frills. Avesthagen is one of the few companies in the country working in the agri-biotech sector, she said, adding that, the company is concentrating on developing novel technology for improving agri-productivity. Avesthagen works with its clients on short-term, as well as co-development of projects.

The areas that the company is focusing on include developing hybrids using Cytoplasmic Male Sterile technology. Development of plant, resistant to drought and salt, is yet another focus area of Avesthagen.

We also work along with seed companies, for development of markers linked to significant agronomic traits like pest-resistance, according to Dr Patell. Explaining the significance of this technology, she said that the marker screening service reduces the time for hybrid development. The transformation services are also offered from our fully-equipped facility in Bangalore. We have standardised protocols for transformation of rice, cotton, pearl millet and tomatoes, Dr Patell added.

Research Process Outsourcing (RPO) director at Avesthagen, Dr Rajyashri, elaborated further on the transformation protocol. While the proof of concept is mainly in rice, pearl millet and tomatoes, the technology could be replicated in several other crops, Dr Rajyashri said. The company is also focusing on pyramiding of genes for better-quality of crops. Transformation of sunflower is also something that Avesthagen is working on, according to the RPO director. The Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) has even given a Rs 3.5-crore-grant to Avesthagen towards these efforts.

From the present to the future strategy of the company, Dr Patell has a one-line answer to offer. Avesthagen aims to be a truly Indian global company, bringing out the best breed of solutions. As for how Avesthagens work was different from other agri-biotech companies, she said: It is the only company developing a novel technology to improve agricultural productivity. Also, it offers the facility to cater to all kinds of service in the agri-biotech sector, she added.

And, what exactly are the innovations at Avesthagen, and those in the Indian agri-biotech sector Avesthagen, being a discovery-based company, has a lot of innovations to credit; mainly in the area of transformations, particularly in genetically modified organism (GMO) projects, according to Dr Patell.

Going into the details, she added: Avesthagen has the in-house expertise in the area of stress-resistance genes, whereby there are on-going projects for the development of plants, which are resistant to abiotic stresses. Plus, the Cytoplasmic Male Sterility technology deals with the production of hybrids in a short span of time.

The CSIR grant is like a jewel in the crown for the company. Dr Patell spoke about it with pride. Avesthagen has been granted the NIMITLI project by CSIR. NIMTLI project deals with the expression of a-linolenic acid in sunflower through transformation of sunflower with the of D-15 desaturase gene, she said.

Dr Patell refused to name her rivals in business. She, however, said: Like any other business, we do have competition, and we welcome competition. Thats quite conventional, though, particularly when its coming from someone whos gone against the tide.

Dr Patell got a PhD in 1993 in Plant Molecular Biology from University of Louis Pasteur, Strasbourg, France, and did a Post-doctoral tenure from University of Ghent, Belgium. She received several grants from institutions such as the Rockefeller Foundation, Indo-French Centre for the Promotion of Advanced Research (IFCPAR) etc. Dr Patell and her group at Avesthagen have to their credit several patent applications in the field of gene discovery, gene functionality, gene transformation, bioinformatics and biotherapeutics.