It’s been a while since I put those long-form writing skills to work, and whatever you may think about the result, I really enjoyed myself. A few weeks ago, Shaastra, a new science and technology magazine by IIT Madras published my piece on emerging new drug discovery start-ups in India in the May-June issue, their first. You can read the article here. When I began researching this article, I was more curious than hopeful. I had been among those who chronicled the audacious foray into completely new drugs of a clutch of publicly-listed Indian generic pharmaceuticals companies in the late nineties and early 2000s, the initial euphoria and subsequent disenchantment of the stock market, followed by a quieter but telling restructuring of some, if not all, of these efforts.
What I found now gives rise to some cautious optimism. Of course, we are nowhere close to the Indian government’s Pharma Vision 2020 of being among the world’s top five pharma innovation hubs or even a global leader in end-to-end drug discovery and development. It doesn’t even seem likely in the foreseeable future for Indian drug discovery. But what has changed over several years is firstly, the creation of an ecosystem – with elements such as avenues of seed funding and incubation – that was almost entirely absent when generics companies first ventured into drug discovery. This has ensured that, at least to start work, you don’t need deep pockets i.e. substantial upfront capital expenditure in labs and equipment. The result is discovery start-ups founded by professionals – scientists and engineers, including some who worked in the labs of generics companies – who would, otherwise, likely not have turned enterpreneurs in such a high-risk field in India.
Secondly, the emergence of a contract research industry – set up to cater to foreign innovators – is now available to these start-ups to tap into, for a fee. Thirdly, the world is their oyster – from development to funding and commercialisation, many of these companies are thinking global from the get-go. Some of them are adopting a hybrid model that straddles continents to monetize their assets better.
But they are still relatively small in number. And they continue to fight an uphill battle as described in the article. Funding continues to be a major challenge, and unsurprisingly, there are calls for generics companies to take a more active interest in partnering with them. But the important thing is that they exist. In doing so, and in their quest to keep moving their assets further into development, they are building skills and exploring new pathways of development and funding, thus keeping the door open for others to follow. India is not even close to leading in drug discovery like the US or parts of western Europe, but the pandemic has under-scored that the associated knowledge and skills are a must-have for the country. Every effort must be taken to build them.