Friday, January 4, 2013

Policy-makers can influence climate for innovation: Dr. MK Bhan at DBT

Dr. Maharaj Kishan Bhan, who recently retired after an extended term as Secretary of India’s Department of Biotechnology, has shown that a determined and empathetic policy-maker can create a difference through policies and programmes, even in India’s apparently “difficult-to-change” bureaucratic environment.

While there is some controversy over whether the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead ever said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever does,” in Dr. Bhan’s case we can safely say that here is one individual who has made a sustained effort to enhance the stature and quality of biotechnology in India.

DBT’s Good Track Record

Of course, he was lucky to start with. Among scientific departments, the DBT already had a good track record of supporting innovation and changing its innovation strategy to match the evolution of the field in India. In the 1980s, the DBT supported creation of infrastructure and research capabilities by sponsoring the formation of biotech departments in leading universities such as Madurai Kamaraj University and Jawaharlal Nehru University. In the 1990s, it actively supported academic research programmes, and set up new research institutions, thereby further strengthening the research base in what continues to be a very research-intensive industry. Dr. Bhan stepped in at the right time by focusing on industrial research and commercialization, and creating the foundation for a strong industrial base in biotechnology.

Dr. Bhan’s Leadership Style

Unfortunately, I haven’t had the privilege of getting to know Dr. Bhan personally, but I did have the opportunity to interact with him in a professional matter, and that gave me some first-hand experience of his leadership style. In 2008, my colleague Professor K. Kumar, and I were awarded the task of reviewing the DBT’s flagship SBIRI programme and suggesting ways in which the effectiveness of the programme could be enhanced. While our early interactions were with his colleagues in the Department, we made an extended presentation of our recommendations to Dr. Bhan. I was impressed by the seriousness with which he received our comments, his in-depth knowledge of how similar programmes work in other countries, and his openness to our recommendations. He also had a gentle way of involving his colleagues from the department in the discussion including the FA (Financial Advisor) and I could see from the nature of discussion that he had created a collegial atmosphere for discussion and debate in the DBT, something quite unusual in the corridors of power in Delhi.

Dr. Bhan on Innovation

For someone who spent most of his career as a pediatrician at the All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS), Dr. Bhan showed considerable insight into the challenges of industrial innovation. I had the good fortune of listening to him at the IKMC Knowledge Exchange organized by the IKP Knowledge Park in November 2011.

In his talk at the IKMC 2011, Dr. Bhan identified several obstacles to innovation in India: (1) a reluctance to experiment – he gave the example of the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) that is known not to work well, but very few alternatives have ever been tried out; (2) the talent pool is not diverse enough for product innovation (“we don’t need scientists alone”); (3) there are poor flows of knowledge (not enough bi-directional flows); (4) there is fragmentation in government which prevents integrated policy-making (he asked why are there separate biotech and pharma departments?); and (5) people are talking at each other (he asked how often have the technical people in the scientific ministries spoken to the FAs and explained to them the nature of their work? – in Dr. Bhan’s case, as I explained above in the context of our SBIRI review, he is clearly a man who tried to practice what he preached!).

Action Orientation

Dr. Bhan’s preference for action and change, and unwillingness to accept the inevitability of government ineffectiveness or inefficiency came through in several other observations he made on the occasion. Dr. Bhan called for a second freedom struggle, a need to make things hassle-free. “Demand drives innovation” – he called for a policy to create demand. He called for deep engagement, a sense of urgency, accountability, agility, and transparency. Very much the kind of sentiments that are dominating civil society’s moves on various social fronts today, only this came from a senior government official!

DBT Initiatives under Dr. Bhan

Under Dr. Bhan’s leadership, the DBT has pioneered a number of exciting initiatives like the Small Business Innovation Research Initiative (SBIRI) and the Biotech Industry Partnership Programme (BIPP), etc. which have the potential to change the innovation landscape in the biotech industry. The DBT has set up a separate non-profit company, the Biotech Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) which is the DBT’s window to emerging biotech companies. The DBT’s initiatives cover the whole spectrum of innovation from ideation to scaling-up to commercialization. DBT typically provides 30-50% of the funding required for discovery-led innovation under these programmes. While the funding is in the form of outright grants to small companies, in the case of large companies the support can be in the form of low interest loans as well. (A typical DBT programme announcement is shown below).

The DBT programmes increasingly incorporate a sensitivity to industry needs (the latest ideation support programme is deliberately designed for quick decisions – critical to take ideas forward) but retain some essential checks and balances (DSIR recognition is a pre-requisite for many industry support programmes, but firms located in a recognized incubator are exempted from this requirement, presumably because the incubator has exercised due diligence in hosting the company).

The DBT’s slew of programmes cutting across size of company and stage of innovation remind me very much of the extensive portfolio of programmes of the Office of the Chief Scientist of the Government of Israel. These programmes contributed towards making Israel a Start-Up Nation, and we hope DBT’s programmes can achieve the same for Indian biotechnology.

In the contemporary sprit of open innovation, Dr. Bhan has been a great supporter of collaborative programmes with a wide variety of carefully selected agencies, and in bringing different institutions together. Some of the significant programmes launched include (1) the Stanford India BioDesign programme that I wrote about in my last blog ; (2) the DBT Centre at IIT Madras Research Park which is providing a platform for eye hospitals to collaborate – DBT has created 80 positions there; (3) the IISc – St John’s “glue grant” that encourages collaboration between these two institutions that in spite of being in the same city probably had little interaction earlier; (4) the Wellcome Trust and DBT initiative on affordable healthcare; and (5) the grand challenges programme launched in collaboration with the Gates Foundation and Canada.

Larger Cross-Sector Diffusion & Impact?

While the results of all the initiatives of Dr. Bhan will take some years to be visible, Dr. Bhan has laid a sound foundation for a research-driven biotech industry. One thing I find surprising is that Dr. Bhan’s initiatives have not been emulated by other ministries and departments of the government of India. Rather than remain “vertical” policies of the DBT, many of these should become “horizontal” and sector agnostic, and available to all R&D-intensive parts of the economy. In this context, it is unfortunate that the Department of Scientific & Industrial Research, the government department charged with the task of supporting industrial research in the country has chosen to limit its ambit to playing a supportive role for the activities of the CSIR. The learning from the DBT’s “innovation sandbox” should be diffused for the benefit of the rest of the economy.

No comments:

Post a Comment