India All Set for the Biotech Bounce

The seeds of ATGC Biotech were sown more than a decade ago, when Markandeya Gorantla and his colleagues returned to India after working in the US as Rockefeller Fellows. Their business plan was unusual and hard — to develop pheromones, a kind of chemicals that can change the behaviour of insects. Gorantla wanted to use pheromones to disrupt the mating of insects and, thus, provide the farmer with a clean option for pest control. ATGC was set up in 2011.

At present, only one company in the world sells pheromones for pest control — Japanese firm Shin Etsu. It has products to control just three pests and they together make a $1.2-billion global market. Large seed companies such as Monsanto do not develop pheromones themselves, but fund small companies doing this.

If ATGC successfully develops commercial products, it would be selling in a $3-4 billion global market with very little competition. In its seven years of existence, this Hyderabad-based company claims to have developed 58 different pheromones, some of which are under field trials in India at the moment.

ATGC has raised roughly Rs 14 crore through government grants. It is on the verge of signing up for its first commercial funding, $16 million from two undisclosed agriculture companies. It is also well on its way to raising $100 million for its US subsidiary.

ATGC went through a long gestation period. The main patents were developed by 2011, when the company was formally set up. Then there were trials using a series of Indian and international grants, raising about Rs 3-4 crore each year. The product, if it works commercially, would be nothing short of revolutionary.

Scientist at the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research in Bengaluru, Kamala Jayanthi said, “Pests develop resistance to insecticides if you use again and again. Pheromones are a sustainable solution.”

ATGC is among the small but increasing number of Indian biotech startups trying to develop products for the global market. You could call them the third generation of biotech startups in India. They are founded by experienced scientists and develop difficult technology, often using novel science. They have global ambitions and are looking at making a big impact on the Indian industry and society.

They are also a diverse bunch. Entrepreneurs are setting up companies for regenerative medicine, new methods of drug delivery, novel biocompatible materials, molecular diagnostics, nutrition, sustainable energy, and agriculture.

Some engineering startups are trying to solve healthcare and agriculture problems, thereby stretching the definition of biotechnology. Others develop products vital for biotech research. These startups are joining the older product, services and manufacturing companies to create a strong foundation for a future biotechnology industry.


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