India needs more platforms like the National Bio-Entrepreneurship Competition, which democratises innovation access for ideas with large potential societal impact.
By Nisha Holla & Taslimarif Saiyed
India is home to the third-largest congregation of startups, after the US, and China. This infectious spirit of innovation is permeating everywhere. Unlike any other time in India’s recent history, multitudes are endeavouring to create bottom-up science-based solutions to our challenges. The need for nationwide ideas platforms to support innovators is paramount.
India’s biggest deep science ideas platform that has succeeded in reaching 34 of 36 states/UTs—including Andaman and Nicobar—is the National Bio-Entrepreneurship Competition (NBEC). It is a joint initiative by BIRAC (a research assistance non-profit established by the government’s department of biotechnology) and C-CAMP (Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms, India’s premier life sciences innovation hub). NBEC has seen steady growth in three years, from 1,500+ registrants in 2017 to 2,000+ in 2018, and nearly 3,000 in 2019. This phenomenal growth signifies the thirst for innovation in all corners of India and the lay Indian’s drive to solve societal challenges.
NBEC’s goal is to unlock bio-entrepreneurship talent all over India. Ideas are encouraged from all domains of life sciences, including healthcare, agriculture, food, nutraceuticals, environment, water, and animal health. Participants develop diverse indigenous technologies and solutions, weighted toward impact, based on scientific fundamentals, and applications.
The framework is designed such that competitors are judged solely on the merit of the idea and its societal impact. The core proposition is that if the idea is good and the ideator has the drive, supporting infrastructure can be provided through a network of innovation hubs, industry, and mentorship. It is this idea-first framework that India must implement across other verticals like cybersecurity, energy, defence, urban design, health, and water management to unlock greater innovation-led entrepreneurship. The value proposition lies in three broad areas—a robust framework that democratises innovation access, emphasis on ideas with national societal impact, and connecting innovators up the idea-to-market value chain.
While generating a good idea to solve a large-scale problem is hard, taking the idea up the idea-to-market value chain is even harder. Many good ideas have ended up going nowhere for lack of access to the enabling ecosystem of industry and innovation hubs. A unique feature of NBEC is that it doesn’t just end the day when winners are announced; it then serves as a launchpad for the competitors with the best ideas. Not only the winners, but a bigger cohort of participants are invited to form partnerships with industry leaders, and innovation hubs to operationalise their concepts.
The number of organisation partners that have been bought into this value proposition has steadily risen, from 10 in 2017 to 17 in 2019, including three international partners. Organisations like the WIN Foundation, Ankur Seeds, Applied Materials, AWS, Biocon, CIIE-IIM(A), GE Healthcare, CII, Pfizer, and others have come to firmly believe in the value of a deep science ideas platform. These organisations bring diverse operations experience, technical know-how, market reach, and mentorship to the table, proving invaluable to the innovators they partner with and support.
India’s challenges are unique; our solutions must resonate. Indigenous technologies are the need of the hour, such as:
The 2017 NBEC Ankur Seeds Prize winner FIB-SOL designs biodegradable nanofibre carriers that can carry the same active fertiliser dosage in a 5 g pouch as a 5 kg bag today, thereby reducing logistics costs by 1000x and increasing shelf life by 2x. This solution simultaneously revolutionises the agriculture, fertiliser, environmental, and energy sectors.
The 2018 NBEC Biocon Excellence Prize winner Module has miniaturised UTI detection into a credit card-sized test platform that can detect four major UTI pathogens in 30-60 minutes, compared to the 24-48 hours it takes today in a laboratory setup, at a fraction of the cost, thereby opening up affordable healthcare access to millions in rural India and elsewhere.
The 2019 WIN Foundations Prize winner AlchemeRobotics provides a robotic solution to help the otherwise thankless job of manual scavenging through septic tanks, solving a massive health hazard and modernising an industry long overdue.
Some other solutions that have come out of the programme include compostable sanitary napkins made from banana fibres as well as smokeless sanitary napkin disposable technology, both providing affordable solutions in sustainability, image-based screening solutions for eye diseases to overcome the challenge of unavailability of specialist doctors, microbial colourants as an alternative to polluting synthetic colours, and a therapeutic platform for neuro-rehabilitation treatment for autism and brain stroke. Out-of-box sustainable solutions are the norm rather than the exception, and this is by design.
Many of these solutions are in alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations. They cater to prevailing societal needs, and challenges of affordability, accessibility, and availability in India. Therefore, carefully structured ideas platforms like NBEC serve as ideal vehicles to effect socio-economic impact at scale across India. In particular, it translates deep science research from the lab to the market. Moreover, many parts of the world, like Africa, are in need of similar solutions. With deep science ideas platforms, India can position itself as a sustainable solutions innovator, and provider.
Inspiration for path-breaking innovation and business ideas comes to people from all strata of society, and from all regions of the country. For example, many NBEC ideators are women, and from tier 2-3 cities/towns of India. The emphasis on democratisng access for innovators with ideas that have a large potential for societal impact has proved successful.
With India in nation-building mode, we need models to enable our innovation talent, and support them to develop game-changing ideas. While NBEC focuses on innovative ideas in the bio-agri-health network, the model can be effectively replicated for other deep science innovation fields like energy, defence, semiconductors, automobile design, and others where India must develop technological leadership to fuel industrial and economic growth. India is aiming for $10 trillion GDP by 2030. A model that unlocks indigenous innovation talent, and integrates it with infrastructure, government, industry, and innovation hubs could well be the key driver to achieve this.
(Nisha Holla is technology fellow & Saiyed is CEO and director, C-CAMP. Views expressed are personal.)