by BP Acharya, IAS
At a time the when the whole world is anxiously waiting for the Covid 19 vaccine, inevitably the attention goes to Genome Valley that is a world class life science cluster in the outskirts of Hyderabad, where 4 out of 6 home grown vaccines are developed (led by Covaxin of Bharat Biotech), or to be manufactured when successful. Genome valley has about a third of world’s vaccine manufacturing capacity and is bound to play a major role in the months to come to control the pandemic. No wonder, the Russian agency / company wanting to mass produce Sputnik V vaccine was looking for collaborations here. For those of us who were involved in facilitating this cluster, including yours truly, it’s indeed a matter of pride when we look back at its genesis…
The story of the Genome Valley begins two decades ago in a sleepy village of Shameerpet mandal called Turkapally, about 30 kms from Hyderabad (though it appeared farther away due to the Reserve Forest area in between). An intrepid NRI scientist Dr Krishna Ella decides to return to India and sets up his biotech industry (Bharat Biotech) in 1996 in this God-forsaken village. Little did he realise then that his would be the anchor industry in the global biotech hub, though he always nursed such a dream! By then Hyderabad well was on its way to be a IT, software hub, beginning to compete with Bangalore (as it was called then) and as the then Chief Minister Mr Chandrababu Naidu used to often say, “IT and BT (biotech) should be the thrust areas for the State.”
It was at this momentous cusp of time, I made a fortuitous entry into the scene ,as I was asked in March, 2000 to take over as Secretary, Industries and Commerce (replacing Dr Sheela Bhide, almost 10 years senior to me). She literally put the biotech (and genome valley) baby on my hands and said, “take care of the baby.” I was tentatively diffident to begin with, but, as is my wont, wanted to give it my best shot. Meanwhile, the ICICI Knowledge Park, the first R&D park of the country, had come up in May 2000, near Bharat Biotech and about 150 acres of Government land was earmarked next to it to develop as Biotech park on the new-fangled Public- Private partnership mode. Draft biotech policy of the State was ready with Ernst & Young chosen as Consultants to guide the State in this sector. A biotech advisory committee headed by eminent scientist Dr D Balasubramanian (former Director, CCMB) was also set up to ensure industry- academia- Government interface.
With all these carefully chosen elements in place, Genome Valley was literally like a big jigsaw puzzle waiting to be solved! A daunting task in the Government, no doubt, but not impossible. That was when we decided to take up the gauntlet, goaded by good friends Utkarsh Palnitkar and Vishal Goel of E&Y, and ably guided by Dr D. Balasubramanian, Chairman of the Advisory committee and Late Dr BS Bajaj (may he rest in peace) of the Biotech association.
For the next 4-5 years, we in the Team Genome Valley, literally worked as men (and women) possessed to build up the cluster bit by bit, brick by brick, as it were ! Here’s how it happened.
The first task was to get the Biotech policy of the State finalised. Utkarsh and Vishal of E&Y helped immensely to finalise the document called “Beyond Tomorrow” ( BT) that provided the basis to attract investments to the State in this sector , thereby sowing the seeds of the Genome valley. We had stiff competition from Karnataka with a very proactive Vision group led by Dr Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and had to aggressively market Genome Valley in India and abroad, especially in events such as, the annual meet of BIO. 2001 was my first BIO in San Diego, where I presented on the Genome Valley in the curtain raiser Bioparks event ,encouraged by friends like Dr Clause Plate of Germany, who later became a supporter of Genome Valley, along with Dr Robert Naismith of USA ,who visited and invested in Hyderabad.
We were quick to realise that promotion without actual development on ground won’t take us far and hence, painstakingly tried to gather each of the elements to make the cluster viable. The first step was to finalise the developer of the Biotech park under the PPP mode in Genome Valley. Shapoorji Pallonji (SP) then headed by Mr Cyrus Mistry (later CEO, Tata Group) had to be convinced over several rounds of herbal tea (a novelty then !) in their historic Colaba Office ,that it was a risk worth taking, as Cyrus’s grandfather took up the gambit by making the” Mughal e Azam” film in 1960.Of course, developing infrastructure is not as exciting as filmmaking or producing , but found SP professionally equal to the task to build , operate and market what was known then as SP biotech park over 150 acres allotted to them adjacent to the ICICI Knowledge Park (now called IKP).
As this was the first of its kind Biotech cluster in India, we were eager to bench mark it against the best in the world and took a high level delegation led by the then CM (Mr CB Naidu) to visit Research Triangle Park in North Carolina in 2002, after the World Economic Forum held that year in New York ( not Davos ), as a mark of solidarity after the 9/11 incident . By 2002, the first of the allottees in Biotech Park started their manufacturing units and Dr Ella’s Bharat Biotech had company in what was to become a vibrant Life Sciences cluster in a few years. But there were issues like water supply, pollution control, fire station, cafeteria, housing etc, that had to be addressed and the whole area was declared as pollution free zone to make it suitable for Life science sector. Fortunately, my brief stint as MD, HMWS&SB in 2004-05 (immediately after my tenure as Secretary, Industry in charge of Biotechnology), helped to complete the project to draw water from a distance of about 20 kms (Alwal reservoir of Water Board) and a felt need of the cluster was met, paving the way for its growth and expansion in the years to come. Meanwhile, we felt the need to hold a regular event to show case Genome Valley and that’s how Bio Asia (which has grown to be one the major global shows over the years) and FABA (Federation of Asian Biotech Associations, with Dr B.S.Bajaj as the Secretary-General) were born.
Soon the area allotted for biotech park was fully occupied and there was a need to plan for its expansion. When I came back to Industry sector again in 2005, this time as MD, APIIC (till 2010), we could earmark 100 acres of land next to ICICI KP in Lalgadi Malakpet, as Biotech Park Phase 2 (partly notified as SEZ) and later 150 acres in the nearby village of Karkapatla for Phase 3, which is now fully occupied and search is on for identifying land for the next phase. In Phase 2, a major vaccine manufacturing facility was set up by Biological E, which is now collaborating with Johnson & Johnson for their Covid vaccine. In Phase 3, Indian Immunologicals has also set up a major vaccine manufacturing unit and is also involved with another Covid vaccine candidate. In Phase 2, 100 acres was allotted by State government , ICMR for setting up the National Animal Research Facility ( NARF) , the largest of its kind in India, that will be a big boon for the Biopharma industry for pre clinical trials etc.
Thus, over the last two decades, the Genome Valley has emerged as a truly global life sciences hub, the only one its kind in India and today hosts over 300 companies, including major international players, thereby providing employment to over 20,000 persons, either directly or indirectly. After the formation of Telangana, it has gathered further momentum, with Industry Minister of the State, Mr KT Rama Rao, himself a student of microbiology, evincing a great deal of interest to promote Genome Valley, as a preferred place for investment.
For those of us, who were involved, since its very inception, it is indeed a proud moment to see it in the forefront of the battle against the pandemic. The story of the Genome Valley is also an example of building a viable ecosystem for a successful industrial cluster by carefully planning and implementing each of the elements essential for its growth and carefully placing bits and pieces of this big jigsaw puzzle together. All in all, it was indeed a labour of love for yours truly! ( BP Acharya is the DG,MCRHRDIT&Special Chief Secretary, Government of Telangana)