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Starting up in Science? Here’s what you need to know before you do.

A few years ago, Dr Fathima Benazir would not have dreamed that she would be the CEO of a startup with a product developed from her research.

She was content in the world of academics, spending long days in the lab working on the subject she loved- Biotechnology.

But an eye-opening conversation with childhood friend and now co-founder Alex D Paul made her realise that she wanted her research to have a larger impact on the world.

Today, Dr Benazir and Alex run Azooka Life Sciences which is incubated at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. They have developed ‘Tinto Rang’, a natural nucleic acid dye which makes research safer by being an alternative to existing carcinogenic dyes.

Since being incorporated in 2015, Azooka Life Sciences has got recognition on several platforms and they are working on developing new Intellectual Property based-products in Biotech.

They have faced their share of challenges but they’re going strong and have some lessons to share for young Indian scientists with entrepreneurial fire in their bellies!

Here, we share their advice!

#1 Get your basics right
“When you are working in the field of Science, your understanding of basic concepts has to be very clear. This is one field where what you learn in school and college is actually applied in your work every day,” Dr Benazir said.

You should also be passionate about Science. The field requires you to be a hard-worker and without passion, it would be difficult to sustain.

#2 Change your approach to research
Scientists and researchers are often very caught up in getting published in reputed journals and getting citations. If you want to startup in Science, you should change this approach, Dr Benazir said.

As a researcher, entrepreneurship had never been on her mind until she had a conversation with Alex where he asked her, ‘So you are going to do all this hard work and bury it in big books?’.

“Scientists work hard, spend so much time in the lab, and get sacrifice so much. Most of them do amazing work but they don’t know how to see a product in their work and make it commercial,” Alex said.

#3 Participate in Grand Challenges
“There are several Grand Challenges organised by the Government of India. The Department of Biotechnology in various states also have such challenges. Usually, a problem is presented and anybody who is interested has to submit their idea,” Alex said.

Winners of such challenges often receive grants which may range from a few lakhs to a few crores of rupees. The amount is intended to support the winner to work on their idea and develop a proof of concept.

“These are good opportunities to identify problems. In such challenges, there is a strong review process by experts in the field so you get good guidance and you will know if your idea has business value,” he added.

Alex and Dr Benazir urged students to keep their solutions simple, think of new uses for existing resources, and to follow the news to identify where the real problems are.

#4 Find a co-founder with Business Knowledge
“At first, I was skeptical about getting creating a business out of my research because I am a hardcore researcher. I was not confident but then Alex said he would support me,” Dr Benazir said.

Her co-founder Alex has a background in product management, sales, and marketing.

It takes time to understand business so it would benefit to have a partner who understands business. “There have been so many instances of people building great products but they fail to monetise it,” she added.

#5 Starting up in Science is tougher than in other sectors. But things are looking up
“It takes time to develop the product in a Life Science startup. There are many more regulations to clear and certifications you need to get. In this stage, it is difficult to raise funding so it is best to take part in the Grand Challenges which provide grants to take you from idea to Proof of Concept,” Dr Benazir said.

Moreover, product development is capital intensive since lab access, equipment, and clinical trials are required. Since the risks are higher and the wait-time is longer, fewer investors are willing to invest.

In their case, Dr Benazir and Alex got financial support from friends and family. But both say that the ecosystem is improving with more investors showing interest to invest in Biotech startups.

According to them, this is a good time to be in Science startups and the best place to be is Bengaluru!

Here are some of the challenges and grants you can check out!

Global Grand Challenge by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Grand Challenge India by the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

India Innovates by the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, Lockheed Martin, and Tata Trusts

You can also check out the website of Government of India’s Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) to learn more about grants and opportunities in Biotech.

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