Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Has the rise of an Indian sun in drug discovery horizon turned out a no-show? OR is it a mere eclipse?

Looking up on google to put together my next post, I typed out the text “Drug discovery prospects India” and the top most hit was that of a 2012 Current Science study that went on to explain how the authors figured that the prospects are poor for original drug discovery in India. Not quite the encouraging start I was hoping for.., I scrolled further down and I find the counter poser, a report by Kauffman, no less, that predicted a bright future for drug discovery in India way back in 2008.

While the 2012 article, incidentally by Indian authors, isn’t necessarily a very brightly designed study and the Kauffman analysis isn’t exactly reeking of academic rigor, together these reports do raise the pertinent question of, if the rise of the Indian sun in drug discovery horizon turned out a no show? or is it a mere eclipse?

To part validate the above hypothesis, I went about tracking the flow of funds into life science enterprises within India in the past four years – some observations;

  • Considering the 2012 article slams the quality of innovation of Indian CROs,  the discovery services companies ironically cornered >40% of all the investment made in past three years
  • The investments into medical devices & diagnostics pretty much followed the global trend which has been incremental over years  
  • Manufacturing organizations, both biotech & small molecule attracted some investment, I’d guess a sentiment again aided by a hope of continued & incremental global outsourcing
  • Drug discovery organizations receiving venture capital rank at the very bottom of the list at 8% (as against 30% globally)

Even a cursory scan of the existing drug discovery strategies within Indian firms throws up the following aspects;
  • A lot of ‘me too’ approaches/ platforms, including choice of target protein that may have already lost out the race to the plethora of US/EU innovator organizations
  • Continuing the above line, a lack of novelty of approach, something that’d make an investor sit-up and take notice
  • Incomplete, inadequate composition of scientific-leadership teams  i.e. key functional leaders & a sound advisory board
  • A surprising lack of in-licensed drug candidates in the portfolios vis-à-vis’ efforts on building novel molecules from scratch
  • A similar lack of high pedigree academic partnerships, Indian as well as overseas
  • Last but not the least, a surprising lack of any focused attempt to use make use of the India-specific advantages like drug discovery based on Traditional & complementary medicine et al

As with most SWOTs, all the above weaknesses can be worked on and converted into opportunities. Looking at the diaspora of top-notch Indian chemists, molecular biologists, bio-physicists, pharmacologists across the globe making highly innovative & astute contributions to the drug discovery, development & clinical evaluation, I’d readily dismiss any talk of Indians not being up to it when it comes to path breaking innovation – only there is a definite need to re-purpose Indian drug discovery enterprise model, if I may say so & probably this is true for most other domains even.
Now, who’ll bell the cat? I say why not the investing universe?  of all geographies and domains out there, Indian drug discovery enterprise is where there's a crying, albeit unacknowledged, need for some astute thought leadership and strategic oversight so as to build, nurture & steer the foggy but promising entrepreneur pool - and who better than the venture capitalist to assume this constructive role, shift the paradigm & eventually partake the fruit of success?

Food for thought.


It’s about time the IRR of an Indian discovery organization is determined by the sheer value of the IP & portfolio it generates and NOT on whether the company is incorporated in Boston, Basel or Singapore.