Nature Biotechnology | Trade Secrets

Technology Transfer in India

It has long been held that economic growth of a nation is closely dependent on its openness to generation and transfer of knowledge, which cannot be kept within the confines of an arbitrarily drawn national boundary. Thus protectionist policies that are often adopted to safeguard the interest of domestic players of a nation become an impediment to its growth and development potential.

India inherited a poorly defined and monopolistic domestic sector from its colonial past. However, Indian industry has been growing steadily since liberalization from its normal interactions with probable tech donors. It now has policies like automatic approval to all industries for foreign collaborations, so long as there is a decent lump sum payment (although there are regulatory ceilings on royalty payments). The result has been a blossoming of a few primarily Indian biopharmaceutical groups into multinational enterprises. Also, India has seen that projects with international collaborations have recorded minimal economic dispersion. This has enhanced the confidence of India, a nation that already has conspicuous human resources primed for research and development activity.

Still, India has not reached anywhere close to the biotech global top spots, despite its solid positioning in the low technology sectors, such as agriculture and dairy. Clearly something has gone amiss in this whole process. Either Indian corporations do not see a good market for hi-tech products, or there is no indigenous generation of high technology, or international groups offer only last-generation technology for collaborations. It must be said, however, that Indian research laboratories are close to global current trends on conceptual and technical terms. Obviously a lot of potential remains unharnessed, demands unmet and dreams unrealized.

Perhaps the problem in India is that elite researchers tend to not necessarily be technology oriented. I vividly remember an honest academic colleague of mine being at a total loss when asked what salable product he might deliver out of his research in plant response to stress – without that, he could not ask for grants from a biotechnology resource. He was simply not inclined to view the applicable aspect of scientific research.

Another colleague sold the funding agency on his claim of having generated value-added potatoes, but those potatoes have yet to reach the market. More recently, there was an initiative from the Department of Biotechnology, which was met with all kinds of apprehension and resistance from academic institutions of repute. Also, there is a trend where an influential group will try to quickly glorify its protégés through favors or by conferring recognition and unduly supporting grant proposals. Unfortunately the review for international proposals also has to pass through that same group, and the bias remains uncorrected.

India needs to chart its own independent priority in tech development, translation and transfer. Those writing the policy documents of India have to work in concert with the needs on the ground in agriculture, manufacturing, and healthcare, as much as on the global demand and supply situation. Being a populous country, it will be prudent to develop a model that also lifts the people. The biotech graduate has to have hands-on training not only in fundamental research but also in one of the biotechnological processes. We know this can work because when given the proper background, Indian researchers invariably do well when posted abroad.

Pramod Yadava


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    Brady Huggett said:

    Pramod, how does India overcome this inability to think about a "salable product" coming out of research, as you mentioned? Do you have any ideas?

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    Viren Konde, PhD said:

    It is certain that the present technology transfer policies in the Indian research organizations need to be restructured in order to bring more products to market, faster and that are affordable.

    The Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Government of India supports setting up of Intellectual Property Management and Technology Transfer Offices (IPM&TTO) in the State and Central Government funded Universities and Institutions.  The Office acts as a transfer mechanism for these research outcomes to migrate from the university and research laboratories to the market place for benefit of the society.  The Office not only assists in the protection of IP generated within its institution or organization, but also  serves as a platform for generating revenues for further research and development activities.

    Sometimes, the best answers are not found in-house. Sustaining organic growth solely through in-house R & D may not be the best strategy to survive and thrive for a "salable product". It also helps to learn by just looking around for the success stories. Some of the Indian Institutes like IMTECH, Chandigarh (Staphylokinase, Clot-specific recombiant Streptokinase, Caerulomycin A – an immunosupressive agent, Oral recombinant cholera vaccine, etc) and CCMB, Hyderabad (recombinant DNA-based Hepatitis-B vaccine, RNasin – an enzyme-inhibitor, PCR-based markers, etc) have been succesful in commercializing their research. Several of these have been licenced as technologies to industry and some of them are in actual usage.

    Besides that, the Indian government has plans to promote the existing measures for R&D in industry by introducing 200 per cent weighted deduction on R&D expenditure in the current fiscal year along with the incentives and tax concessions etc. to encourage Technology transfers and capability building.


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    Andrew Marshall said:

    Pramod – your comment about the lack of entreprneurial/technological acumen among academics is intriguing. I suspect part of this is also partly due to the culture instilled from colonial times! Perhaps there are opportunities in areas, such as IT, where India has truly excelled both locally and on the international stage. Given the strength of Indian research in informatics and programming, do you think there might be particular opportunities for Indian enterprises in areas where IT and the life sciences overlap?

    Viren – it seems to me that though helpful, the tax incentives won’t be enough to really spark the formation of more numerous and more productive relationships between academia and industry. My experience in the US and Europe is that making tech transfer work is about people. Excellent TTOs help, but you also need to find ways to bring academic investigators into contact with industry investigators so they can have productive conversations. Along these lines, the government might think about forming industry-academic consortia in particular precompetitive areas, or think of other ways to give academics at institutions more encouragement to reach out to industry.