Indo-Swiss Collaboration in Biotechnology (ISCB)

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Algal laboratory at DBT-ICT CEB, Mumbai

Around the globe, the resources for agriculture production are under pressure – soil, biodiversity and water as the climate change and increasing populations affects the poorest countries where an extensive percentage is spent on the food. Poverty and increasing population are the principle drivers of food insecurity. Prevention is better than cure! Yes that’s absolutely correct. Instead of having problems for our coming generation, it is better to have some policies and laws to reduce food insecurity. In order to contribute towards food security in the Indian context through latest life sciences and biotechnology approaches, supporting sustainable and resilient agriculture, a bilateral research and product development programme has been started jointly by the Indian government (Department of Biotechnology in New Delhi) and Swiss government (Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation in Bern) and it was coined as Indo-Swiss collaboration in biotechnology.

In this programme, latest innovative biotechnological products and processes of relevance with small and marginal farmers are developed. Their penetration and adoption is promulgated through public and private partners.

The ISCB Drive (1974-1987)

This programme was initiated in 1974 by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in Bern and Department of Biotechnology (DBT) in Delhi. In the very first collaboration phase, it included only 2 partners: The Biochemical Engineering Research Centre of the Indian Institute of Technology and the Institute of Biotechnology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. In the field of biochemical engineering, attention was put on the development of infrastructure, curriculum and human resource. The main objective of this programme was to attain high quality academics and educational standards. After a stretch of ten years, the biotechnology engineering research department was independent for the Indian government with regard to future biotechnology R&D centres. At that time also, the future of biotechnology was narrow and it was complicated to raise the interest in the Indian industry in research products. The Indian government then decided to extend the programme.

The ISCB Extension (1988-1996)

In 1988, the second phase of programme was initiated and four research institutions were selected. After a project review in 1995, two more partners were added. In the previous phase, the major goal was to strengthen the scientific and technological capabilities of Indian R&D institutions in biotechnology. The second phase did not differ in its objectives, except the size of the number of partners and activities. These projects were selected by representatives like SDC, DCB and ISCB and all this comes under a joint project committee. Projects were selected by analysing various factors like the development of biotechnology institutes or region, their ability for future commercialisation and the potential for technology transfer.

The New ISCB Programme (1997- present)

In 1997, an external evaluation was done which led to the formulation of new perspectives for the ISCB. After several discussions, it was decided that more stakeholders should be involved. In 1999, India and Switzerland signed a five year bilateral agreement, which defined the new framework for the ISCB programme. This agreement is still valid and renewed after subsequent time periods by signing a letter of understanding between the two governments. Projects were to be setup jointly with research institutions, regulating state agencies, people dealing with ethical questions and industries.

Implementing Approach

In the biotechnology industry, value chain approach is widely used, but it is also implemented as a planning and management instrument to accelerate research activities to product development and diffusion. This approach includes a series of steps where problems are analysed first (in this case, problem of a farmer is identified) then it ends with meeting them. The ISCB value chain is a cycle rather than a linear process. This value chain approach is generally a profit making rationale. In order to include all aspects of value chain during the whole process, all stakeholder groups should be involved based on participatory concepts during the whole process. This may be implemented by multi-stakeholder platforms. ISCB provides funding, extending capacity building and coaching during the research process. Whereas, during the expansion and penetration stage, intervention may be restricted to a few targeted activities like training of extension officers in handling of a novel product developed under ISCB.

Technology Transmission

Agro product developmentThe third programme was one of the most encouraging and challenging parts of the ISCB programme. It was the translational phase of the ISCB funded projects. In the earlier two phases, the programme has encouraged an excellent quality of research with a clear focus of the product and its development. For the wellbeing of smallholder farmers in India, project partners within the ISCB collaborative framework had developed socially and economically relevant technologies. Product validation, regulatory dossier development, product commercialisation and residual product development efforts in a collaborative mode; all these are involved in the translational phase. The first two phases were aimed at a pure research analysis by the public research workers, whereas in the translational phase private sector was involved which led to product commercialisation.

Programme Management Unit (PMU)

For the management of ISCB, Programme Management Unit is jointly responsible with Technology Advancement Unit. PMU is located at the Eccole Polytechnic Federale de Lausane (EPFL). To fulfil the goals of ISCB, PMU collaborated with people from academics, industry and government.

PMU Tasks: a) To manage SDC funds and monitor SDC and DBT funds;
b) To assist and supervise TAU in its further development;
c) To coordinate with Joint Apex Committee (JAC) and organise meetings.

Technology Advancement Unit (TAU)

This involves the continued support of network projects on their way towards product development and final application. To further encourage technology transfer and advanced product development, a Technology Advancement Unit (TAU) was established in New Delhi in 2010. This specific unit was established to take care of ISCB activities from transfer of potential products to product development partners up to adoption of small farmers.

TMU Tasks:

a) To organise and coordinate capacity building of ISCB Partners;
b) To provide data to the PMU for planning and monitoring of ISCB at programme level;
c) To provide advisory and support services to DBT.

Goals and Outcomes

ISCB was a mega project and this initiative was taken to resolve the issues related to food insecurity. In order to achieve the targets, several goals were fixed. Some of them are listed below:

a) To build capacities and R&D partnerships between Indian and Swiss institutions and private companies with strong economic, social and ecological relevance;

b) Enhancing capacity building in the partner institutes and to help transfer innovative technologies in agriculture and environmental research;

c) To develop biotechnological processes and products which have an impact on sustainable development of natural resources in India.

The major targeted ISCB outcomes were:

a) Knowledge sharing and policy dialogue;
b) Strengthening institutional setup;
c) From translational research to final product;
d) Access and adoption by small and marginal farmers.

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About Author:
Author is an Associate Editor of this Magazine

Sources upon request.