Thursday, 9 January 2014

Biotech Education in India Needs a Booster Dose

Our academic institutes of learning and research have focused on developing large numbers of qualified personnel but not necessarily with the skills and quality attributes sought by Industry to compete globally. It is vital to fix the skills deficit if we are to attain our global aspirations. 

India’s biotechnology industry has evolved in a challenging environment of sub-optimal funding, inadequate infrastructure and weak regulation.  What is commendable is the sustained growth momentum the sector has delivered over the years and the scale that many segments have realized.

The sector is currently valued at about $11 billion, having grown at a CAGR of ~20% over the last 10 years.  It is estimated that enabling policies can create a favourable business environment capable of generating Biotech revenues of US$ 100 billion by 2025.

The success of the Indian Biotech sector is attributable to a large pool of English-speaking scientific and engineering talent and an educated technical work force that has enabled cost competitive R&D and manufacturing to provide India with a significant competitive edge over many other nations.  India now aspires to position itself as a leading global innovation hub for biotechnology.

The path ahead is fraught with challenges of mounting global competition which in turn also offer enormous opportunities of growth.  Success will largely depend on the availability of high end talent, easy access to capital and simpler regulation.  The reality of the day is that our talent pool is shrinking, our regulatory environment has become Draconian and access to capital is difficult.  Of these, we must pay urgent attention to the growing skill deficit that the Biotech sector faces in our ability to develop Biosimilar drugs that will augment India’s Pharma success in generic drugs; genetically modified Crops, Biofuels and enzyme based Green technologies.

Our academic institutes of learning and research have focused on developing large numbers of qualified personnel but not necessarily with the skills and quality attributes sought by Industry to compete globally. It is vital to fix the skills deficit if we are to attain our global aspirations. 

Rising demand for specialized skills

Today, the rapid pace at which scientific knowledge is advancing puts a high demand on highly skilled scientists and engineers.  We need to push the boundaries of genetic engineering in order to find innovative applications across a diverse cross section of industries from pharmaceuticals to agriculture, industrial enzymes and informatics.

Furthermore, synthetic biology is gaining great prominence in developing new diagnostics, novel vaccines and drugs and a number of value added nutritional and food ingredients.

Another evolving field of study is the area of bio-markers and companion diagnostics, which is the future of new medicine that will personalize therapy and optimize the benefits of biotech drugs.

Another frontier area is DNA-based Biometrics which can far outweigh the benefits of retinal and fingerprinting technologies of today and emerge as the most reliable identification technology of the future. Its application in India’s Aadhar program can spearhead a powerful global paradigm.  

Unequipped for industry

While specialised life sciences skills are needed to address all these opportunities, a wide gap currently exists between the quality of human capital available and the needs of the industry.

A lack of necessary laboratory infrastructure at many Indian colleges means many biotech graduates probably not have used a basic biotech tool such as a gel apparatus. Such lacunae make their undergraduate knowledge inadequate for an industry setup.

The need of the hour is therefore to equip students not only with theoretical skills but also help them specialize in their chosen field of biotechnology through a rigorous multidisciplinary  project oriented approach that encompasses practical training on sophisticated laboratory instrumentation.
About 40,000 biotechnology students pass out every year from various colleges across the country. However, the skills gap denies most of these graduates’ employment opportunities at the 500 + biotech companies in India.

On an average, 300-500 hopefuls apply for every new biotechnology-related job vacancy but most are rejected as they are just not industry ready.

Many Indian biotech students, who can afford the fees, choose to go abroad for higher studies, attracted by the possibilities of working in state-of-the-art labs and the aspiration of working for leading biotech innovators.

Those without the wherewithal for a foreign degree, typically apply for jobs in biotech and pharma companies or universities and research institutes in India. However, only a handful find the employment of their choice and most resign themselves trapped in underpaid technical, marketing and administrative roles in unrelated sectors like the BPO sector.

Another common complaint of new recruits is unattractive starting salaries compared to the IT sector.  This is on account of the investment that Biotech companies need to make to train them before they are job-ready.

Biocon unveils biotech education initiative

To increase their chances of employability, biotech graduates in India need to be trained effectively to make them industry ready where they can partake in the journey of transforming India through the power of biotechnology.  Moreover, we simply have to expand the talent pool if India’s Biotech sector has to grow and compete globally.

It is with this objective in mind, that Biocon has spearheaded an initiative that will provide the biotech industry the best professionals with the right orientation and training.

We have set up the Biocon Academy, as a one-of-its-kind Centre of Excellence for Advanced Learning in Applied Bio-Sciences.

By collaborating with leading academic institutions globally, the Biocon Academy aims to bring world class training programs for biotech students in India and thus develop a new cadre of life sciences professionals with specialized skills.

Biocon Academy has decided to partner with Keck Graduate Institute, California, in this important endeavour.

KGI is uniquely qualified, through its outstanding faculty and its state-of-the-art infrastructure that includes the Amgen Bioprocessing Center, to help us with this endeavor.

As a premier technical institute, KGI’s training and education programs have built a very strong capability for the US Biopharma sector.  Through this partnership that we hope to emulate the success of the KGI learning model in India and build a robust Biotech sector.

A brand new start

The ‘Biocon KGI Certificate Program in Biosciences’, our flagship program in collaboration with the KGI, kicks off on Jan. 10.  It will provide a multidisciplinary best-in-class 16-week program in biosciences that will equip graduates and post-graduates with the skills needed to make them employable in the biotech sector.

With a broad-based curriculum encompassing R&D, Production as per GMP, Quality Assurance, Regulatory, Product Development and Professional skills, these programs are aimed at addressing the skill deficit of the Indian biotech sector.

Biotechnology can be a powerful tool in addressing the country’s challenges of meeting the food, education and healthcare needs of millions. It can play a very positive role in enhancing the quality of life of the people.

If India is to emerge as a Bio-Economy by 2025, the development of industry-ready human capital for the biotech industry is of vital importance. Biocon Academy hopes to make a significant contribution to this ambitious goal.

by Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Chairperson & MD, Biocon


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