By streamlining development and regulatory processes, and lending more support so our innovators can compete on a global platform, India can develop its health innovation ecosystem into a dominant, post-Covid economic sector
By Taslimarif Saiyed & Nisha Holla
History has demonstrated time and again that crises can bring tremendous opportunities to recognise valuable new socio-economic models and develop them into force-multipliers. There is no doubt that for India today, the Covid-19 pandemic is a strong catalyst for Indian Healthcare Innovation Inc to develop into a force-multiplier for the country’s economy and its national security.
In mid-March, it became apparent that the pandemic was looming large in India. The number of infected cases in Italy, the US and other countries were rising exponentially. India, with a 137-crore population, faced a severe shortage of diagnostic kits, respiratory aids, ventilators, PPE, and other critical capabilities. We are traditionally import-dependent for many of these vital components. Due to the sudden surge in global demand for both patients and to protect frontline workers, combined with defective products from China, a nationwide call for indigenous, high-quality products was sounded—a pull-effect, the likes of which was not seen before.
The Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms (C-CAMP) was ideally positioned to help launch India’s most exciting Covid-response startups. C-CAMP has spent a decade closely working with key departments within the Indian and state governments like Karnataka, regulatory authorities like CDSCO and FDA, and large pharma and manufacturing companies at scale, developing a technology-fortified ecosystem for life sciences and health innovation startups to operationalise valuable IP. A decade’s worth of investment and capacity building in this ecosystem via accelerators and innovation hubs like C-CAMP paid off during this critical life-threatening event.
India’s domestic innovation community rose to the challenge of building high-quality products, at scale and significantly lower prices than comparable products from around the world. A variety of solutions were provided via this ecosystem for:
1. Rapid diagnostics and screening by startups like Mylab, CoSara, Huwel, Molbio, DNAXperts, Module, Trivtron, LungIQ, and Docturnal.
2. Ventilator and respiratory aids by Coeo Labs, Avyantara, and Biodesign Innovation Labs.
3. Preventing the spread of the virus by Need Innovation, Biomoneta, RR Animal Healthcare, and OmicsGen.
4. Cold-storage to maintain sample integrity while transporting to Covid-testing facilities, provided by Blackfrong, and Pluss.
5. Therapeutic candidate development and screening by Innaumation , Eyestem, and Peptris.
These are but a sample; every day, we hear of more novel ideas to tackle the crisis.
Exciting new dynamics at play
1. India is traditionally a large medical solutions importer; this is the first time there is a nationwide push for local innovation to provide the same.
2. In the face of reduced global competition and mistrust in China’s products, Indian innovators are encouraged by a strong local pull-effect for their products and solutions—the first time for many innovators.
3. Local innovations like affordable, high-quality diagnostic kits, respiratory aids and others have already entered the field in record times. These include products by Coeo Labs, Mylab, and others.
4. Regulatory and medical authorities like CDCSO, ICMR and others are working at record speed with innovators to test and launch the products.
5. The quality of these products is quickly validated real-time in field conditions during the pandemic.
6. India now recognises that domestic innovators can design and build products at par with global quality, deliver on time, at affordable prices, and at scale.
7. In these trying times, innovators realise that existing products or methodologies can be repurposed for fighting Covid-19—stirring up the innovation mindset. For example, Eyestem, a startup working on retinal therapeutics, has reconfigured its stem cell platform to rapidly screen for therapeutic candidates against coronavirus.
8. In this emergency, we have cut through red tape and bureaucratic procedures quickly, which highlights multiple ways to streamline the system and build preparedness for similar events in the future.
In effect, India has a new normal for health innovation, far higher and more defensible than anyone thought it would be in the next half-decade in a business-as-usual scenario. Innovators have gained the confidence to build world-class products at affordable prices, and can immediately look at export-orientation after local demand is met. We foresee a reality where India turns into a medical solutions exporter, after decades of playing the captive importer.
A new normal
By retaining these adapted-and-accelerated emergency innovation routines, this has the potential to drive one of the most significant paradigm shifts in healthcare innovations in India for several reasons:
1. The entire machinery for the concept to field/market propagation is primed and ready to deliver—product development, scale-up, testing, regulatory, manufacturing, and domestic and global market distribution.
2. The confidence boost to build world-class products in India, for India, and the world can only lead upwards and onwards.
3. The broader global ecosystem is also interested in the Indian innovation story. Our startup ecosystem is one of the most heavily monitored growth ecosystems in the world, and our ongoing successes in combating Covid-19 is being noticed and will create tremendous pull effects when global supply chains start up again
4. Everyone now knows the potential of regulatory authorities working at full speed to support the ecosystem and will sound a clarion call to make this the new normal.
5. Working together in these difficult times is creating close ties between the startup community, the industry and regulatory authorities. The partnership between Mylab and Syngene to produce seven lakh CDSCO-certified diagnostic kits is a powerful example.
6. It can massively reduce India’s import-dependence for critical components and supplies, which has today proved both a health and economic risk.
The Department of Biotechnology-GoI has launched the National Biomedical Resource Indigenization Consortium (NBRIC) in a PPP model to nurture and fast-track indigenous innovation. Indian Healthcare Innovation Inc is a reliable partner to operationalise GoI’s Make-In-India initiative to make India import-independent for critical parts.
For decades, Indian scientists and researchers have been steadily building up capabilities in life sciences research. In the last decade, a burgeoning innovation/ entrepreneurial ecosystem has developed on the strength of these research capabilities. These decades of investment have converged in the tremendous response of Indian Healthcare Innovation Inc towards providing high-quality, affordable solutions to combat the pandemic. This ecosystem has proven to be a national asset. With some more focused investments, this sector will be in a more robust position to help absorb the impact and save lives more efficiently in the event of another pandemic.
Crises provide moments of clarity and allow us to cut through the malaise and red-tape like no other time. By streamlining development and regulatory processes, revaluating supply chains and dependencies, and lending more support so our innovators can compete on a global platform, India can develop its health innovation ecosystem into a dominant, post-Covid economic sector. It is crucial we nurture the incredible momentum for indigenous health innovation we have built in the past two months and convert this into a perpetual asset.
Saiyed is CEO and Director & Holla is Technology Fellow, C-CAMP. Views are personal