IN a special programme to help industry, the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) has created Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Programme or BIRAP, in partnership with ABLE, the representative organisation of the biotech industry, and the public sector Biotech Consortium India Ltd (BCIL). For this, government has sanctioned Rs 350 crore to be disbursed during the 11th Plan. DBT advisor Renu Swarup, who heads BIRAP, says it expects to promote “innovation, pre-proof-of-concept research and accelerated technology and product development” in the areas of agriculture, health and energy. In a wide-ranging conversation with Latha Jishnu and Jyotika Sood of Down To Earth, Swarup explains how BIRAP and its Biotechnology Industry Partnership Programme (BIPP) function.
DTE: What is that BIRAP offers that private industry cannot get elsewhere?
Swarup: When we partner with industry in a project, we give them complete mentorship. It’s not a regular R&D project of the government, that is, we give the money and forget about it. It’s a partnership programme. We interact with them closely and monitor the project constantly. It’s totally product-driven innovation. Funding given is not like annual budget. It’s milestone budget funding. It can be a two-month, six-month or one-year milestone.
DTE: In a sense you are like venture capital
Swarup: Exactly. That’s what we do. We are trying to take on the risk. Wherever there is a high risk project, we come in. We give grant and loan. The grant we give is a royalty grant. They have to give us royalty because the intellectual property remains with the company.
DTE: In the last call you have funded companies like Tata Chemicals and Mahyco (a Monsanto partner) that have all the money in the world for research. What do they want from you?
Renu: Many companies come to us for academic tie-up, access to a large group of experts with us.
DTE: So the government takes on the risk?
Swarup: What happens is that because we come forward and partner with them, the companies get some reassurance; some part of risk is mitigated. We provide them confidence through the network they get into. Sometimes very senior experts from our side interact with them. They could have not done this in case they were not a part of project. DBT offers a platform, the goodwill we enjoy, and we can bring in more experts to interact with companies. We hardly compensate these experts. We give Rs 500 or Rs 1,000 per sitting. Senior scientists come in just for the goodwill. Actually most of the experts don’t come for this money. Most of the agriculture companies are way in the interior. You have to travel for hours to get to them. These are little things which stop experts. But through DBT, companies are getting a lot of advantages.
DTE: Can you give us some idea of funding for these projects? How large are these projects?
Swarup: it ranges between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 10 crore. It’s the cost of a particular activity. Generally projects we fund are between Rs1 crore and 10 crore. Sometimes, companies ask for higher funds but we tell them it has to be milestone based. If they achieve Milestone 1 then we sanction funds for the next stage.
DTE: But apart grants you give soft loans?
Swarup: Yes, we charge 2 per cent up to Rs 10 crore, 3 per cent above Rs 10 crore. The upper limit is Rs 50 crore.
DTE: Do industries partner with public sector scientists/academics?
Swarup: It’s not mandatory to have an academic partner. But companies are realising it’s important to have academic partners to bring in that R&D component. Because of this funding they have actually been getting academics on board.
DTE: When it comes to getting research to commercial application, you never know what the cost is. Research can go for 10 years, 20 years. Supposing I have idea of doing research in transgenic maize, I tell you its going to cost me around Rs 100 crore will you fund it? What is the guarantee it will provide a product?
Swarup: Our experts look into it. We know realistically it can be done in a certain time frame, plus- minus some years. There is a basic costing. That’s the due diligence we have to do. It’s different from a routine project. We have technical due diligence, technical due diligence, we look at every aspect.
DTE: In this advertisement* how did you selection these crops for research in the current BIPP round?
Swarup: We have lot of discussions and idea generation meeting. We do it area wise. In the case of agriculture we had number of discussions and interface with industry, ICAR, academia and companies working on these crops. Plus, a detailed look at the international research aspect. Crop identification is based on international research. We mapped it to the extent possible, what is available where, who has done what, if there is IP (intellectual property) freedom.
DTE: BIRAP does the IP checks?
Swarup: We do very detailed analysis. We have an IP cell. We also ask companies to give us a report, but we do our own analysis to check on the various patents. What we play is the role of enabler.
DTE: This question of crop selection. A lot of public sector research institutions and international organizations like ICRISAT, CIMMET and IRRI have done work on most of the crops. Do you look at what they have done and how far they have gone?
Swarup: ICAR is a part of the evaluation team and they say it. The DG ICAR is part of our main committee. We associate related departments, too. Whatever has been done by various institutes comes to the fore. The crop priority is less important than the components we support. Companies generally do their homework on where the research sector has gone.
DTE: Why is the intellectual property given to the company when you have funded the project?
Swarup: We fund only majority Indian companies so we don’t see what the problem is. We charge royalty for the grant portion of the funding. If the government decides to keep the IP, what we will do with it? This way we get 5 per cent royalty from the grants that we give companies.
DTE: What has been the response to the current call?
Swarup: WE have just closed the call. We got something like 35-40 projects. But I think the number we are processing is around 30-35 this time.
DTE: Is there any fixed budget for this programme?
Swarup: Every year we get fixed plan budget. We have Rs 350 crore for 11th Plan. Funding has never been a constraint so far. We have never witnessed shortage of funds.
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