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Meeting India's Biotech Community

November 12, 2009
Biotechnology is a global enterprise.  The United States continues to play the dominant role but European and Asian nations are continually expanding their capabilities.

In preparation for BIO’s first ever partnering meeting in India in September 2010, I am travelling the subcontinent to promote the event and to assess the country's biotech capabilities and needs.

On November 4th in Mumbai, I visited Reliance Life Sciences which represents a huge investment in biotech from one of India’s largest and most well known companies.  While reflective of India's current and future strength in manufacturing generics, pharmaceutical ingredients and biosimilars, Reliance intends to become a leader in innovation in drug discovery, agricultural biotech and biofuels.

Next it was on to Piramal Lifesciences which is focused on four therapeutic areas - cancer, diabetes, inflammation and infectious diseases.  The company has a pipeline of fourteen compounds, including four in clinical trials, and has drug discovery and developments agreements with Eli Lilly and Merck.

I then met with the Organisation of Pharmaceutical Producers of India which includes several BIO members. Several representatives suggested that BIO encourage the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to work with its Indian equivalent to provide training to improve the country's drug approval process.  That evening BIO hosted a reception and dinner for India's biotech community.

On November 5th, I gave a keynote address at India's BioInvest Forum which was hosted by the Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises, our co-host for next year's partnering meeting.  Later, I discussed investment opportunities with Orbimed and Fidelity, two investors involved in the Indian biotech landscape.

On November 6th, I visited Genzyme's Delhi office and later had meetings with the Indian Secretary for Pharmaceuticals and with the Minister of Science and Technology.  Both were highly supportive of our partnering meeting plans and offered sage advice as to how to maximize our success.

Monday, November 9th, was a whirlwind of activity with meetings in Bombay at the National Center of Biological Sciences, Strand Life Sciences, Monsanto, Avesthagen, Metahelix and the hugely successful Biocon which has major biologics manufacturing facilities producing biosimilar cancer products, fermentors cranking out statins and a new drug discovery collaboration facility with Bristol-Myers Squibb.  Monsanto's Bollguard cotton seed has achieved wide acceptance in India and has significantly raised farmers' yields and income.  The first biotech eggplant is now awaiting government approval.

India has made significant progress in improving its intellectual property protection, but needs to go further still if it wants to become a significant biotech contributor.  Its strengths have historically been more in chemistry than in biology, which accounts for its greater skills in making follow-on products than in innovating its own.

The country is an amazing blend of primitive and modern cultures.  Driving the streets of Mumbai, Delhi or Bangalore is a harrowing experience of pure chaos.  Modern Toyotas, lumbering trucks, buses in varying states of disrepair, swarms of motorcycles, three wheeled taxis called tok toks, bicycles, push carts, pedestrians and carts pulled by bulls, donkeys, water buffalo and an occasional camel clog the roads.  Despite the incessant horn honking, lane switching, and passing, traffic can often move no faster than the most basic means of transportation.

As India grows its biotechnology capacity, part of its challenge will be to figure out how its brightest scientists and entrepreneurs can keep pace with the rest of the world as it simultaneously grapples with building its educational, transportation, and public utility capacities.