It was born out of a national shortcoming. One where taking new ideas to market, when the innovator did not want to become an entrepreneur, was papered over forever. This was early-to-mid 2000s. Life sciences innovation in India was contracting into a bolus of agony even as the rest of the world was forging ahead with breakthroughs in food, fuel, drugs and devices. The Department of Biotechnology (DBT), set up to work with the industry, had turned into a grant-giving body, like many government agencies. A handful of academics, technocrats and policymakers crisscrossed the country in wide-ranging consultations to arrive at what would become Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (Birac). An agency outside the government, working for the government, running market-driven evaluation of ideas but in an un-government like fashion.

It was a breath, rather a gust, of fresh air. In its organisational design, in hiring, and, importantly, in how it funded the industry. As Maharaj K Bhan, the then secretary of DBT, pushed for reforms, he’d field volleys of queries from the finance ministry which, while appreciative of new processes, was cognizant of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) scrutiny. Remember, it was the time when CAG reports set in motion legal ordeals for various departments. Bureaucrats were more concerned about “recovery and saving their skin” than the success of startups. Yet, here was an about-to-be-born organisation which wanted complete freedom on hiring and firing, on offering salaries, on deciding the career path of lateral hires and backing risky ideas.

“I told them I’d take approval for the percentage of the total budget spent on human resources but whether I want 100 low paid employees or 30 high paid ones, that’s my call,” recalls Bhan.

The agencies of this kind have to remain very nimble, market oriented, very commercially oriented. They are not the researchers but the purveyors of the world where linkages are created

Pankaj Chandra, Vice-chancellor, Ahmedabad University; Member, Birac Board

How would Birac keep corruption low?

“Predominance of women”, Bhan would counter.

True to that spirit, in the initial years, 90% staff was women. Renu Swarup, who, as a DBT member secretary, was part of the early discussions in 2007-08, became the first managing director when Birac was officially set up as non-profit public sector enterprise in 2012.

In the six years of its formal set up and until FY18, Birac has ensured Rs 1870 crore ($268 million) in funding support to 750 startups and entrepreneurs—Rs 942 crore ($135 million) out of its own budget, Rs 928 crore ($133 million) from the industry. Basis its funding philosophy, the industry gets money only if it matches Birac’s grant with its own commitment, dollar for dollar. Such funding was the lever most in the biotech industry needed to start or rev up their innovation engine.

AUTHOR

Seema Singh

Seema has over two decades of experience in journalism. Before starting The Ken, Seema wrote “Myth Breaker: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and the Story of Indian Biotech”, published by HarperCollins in May 2016. Prior to that, she was a senior editor and bureau chief for Bangalore with Forbes India, and before that she wrote for Mint. Seema has written for numerous international publications like IEEE-Spectrum, New Scientist, Cell and Newsweek. Seema is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a MacArthur Foundation Research Grantee.

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