It was our pleasure to interview Bhavna Pandya, one of India’s most inspiring Biotech Entrepreneur. At such a young age, she has managed to build quite a name for her in the Biotech world, not only among prominent professionals but also with students. Her achievements are complemented by her dynamic personality and we had a great time interviewing her.

You are the Head of India’s first DIY Lab and bio-incubator-Bioriidl. What is Bioriidl and how did you start it?

Bioriidl (started in 2015) is a community bio lab and biotech business incubator where we support start-ups and projects. I was struggling to find a lab for a project after my post grad since my college couldn’t accommodate me due to lack of space. This made me realise that like me there might be many others who don’t get lab access to continue their project and research. With this thought, I started a concept- Bioriidl, where people can come and work. During this time, I came across DIY Bio movement which happens in most parts of the world. I got in touch with BioCurious (one of the world’s first community bio lab), and started our own community bio lab in Mumbai. After we had some projects turning into start-ups, we approached BIRAC (Department of Biotechnology, Govt of India), and they provided us a grant of 3 cr to convert us into a full fledged facility and provided infrastructure to support start-ups. We currently have an 8,500 sq ft lab located in Somaiya Vidyavihar Campus with around 17+ startups and more than 30 members who access our lab.

You are also the “Innovation Catalyst” of riidl Foundation housed in Mumbai. Tell us about your responsibilities there. What kind of start-ups are incubated at riidl?

My responsibility is to “catalyze innovation” as the name says. Since we are based in the university campus, we have access to students who don’t have much idea of how to go about with their projects. So, when students can come to us with a project idea, we brainstorm and fine-tune that idea along with them. We do design thinking, guide them and help them reach a conclusion. We have startups in industrial biotech, agriculture, food, medical devices, farming… so I help these projects technically as well as advise on their business aspect (type of business, how to launch, marketing strategies…).

A lot of our readers include students of Life Sciences fields. What opportunities are available for them at Bioriidl? How can they approach you to learn and join your team?

Our lab is very open. You can find pretty much all the information about our equipment and programs on our website: https://riidl.org/bio. Students can visit us, have a look around our facility anytime. It’s open 24/7 and they can walk-in and reach out to us, and share their ideas. We also have internship opportunities, multiple research groups where students can do their projects (Biomaterial, Silk group, drug discovery to name a few), and they can also help us to conduct events and programs. The opportunities are endless, they can get in touch with us easily; my email ID is also available on the website itself.

You are also the founder of one of India’s biggest Biotechnology event, Darwin. Tell us about your event- the reach, networking opportunity, and what’s in store for your audience this year.

Darwin is an international conference which is the first conference that encourages innovation in life sciences. We had organized Darwin last year as well. It is mainly focused on the bio-hacking movement and DIY mindset. Students, professional… anyone who wants to develop their idea can participate in Darwin.

2 years ago we used to organize the bio-hackathon which was mainly focussed on encouraging students to come up with scalable solutions for real life problems. We had around 50 projects and they would work for 3 months before the conference, and finally present it. The cash prize was Rs. 1,00,000 and the winner is now pursuing his own research.

However, since this year innovators don’t have access to a lab, we have converted this event into a research symposium. So, participants from last year as well as students working on their research, can also now present and publish their papers. We have already received over 450 applications, and are expecting more.

The speakers this year are truly amazing- there’s Prof George Church (Prof of Genetics at Harvard Medical School) as the keynote speaker. We have speakers from media labs, Oxford, Johns Hopkins to name a few. These speakers have such a phenomenal background and have accomplished great success in their respective fields. I think anyone who joins our conference will have a lot to learn. We have workshops, virtual tours, panel discussions- there is so much to take back for everyone.

Biotech Entrepreneurship is not a conventional career option in India. As a biotech entrepreneur, what challenges did you face establishing yourself and your organization.

This field is definitely very time consuming. It requires a lot of validation and research to finally say something is working. I started my company, Cocoon, which was based on silk fibre. I developed an economical enzyme, got a patent on it as well, that can degrade protein coat from the silk fibre. This is a traditional process in the silk industry where they use many chemicals and boil silk to conduct this process. This entire process however consumes a lot of water, and the chemical effluent of it is a big environmental hazard. So, I researched on the prospect of finding a better and more environmental friendly alternative for this process, which led me to develop my enzyme. The crude enzyme itself is working very well, so not much processing is required in turn saving the cost. Before I started Bioriidl, there weren’t many facilities to pursue this. But now I can go on to validate this project and scale it on an industrial level. This gets me back to our time challenge-it requires 5 years of investment without earning anything and the risk of its functionality, getting investors, its scalability… it is a tough business.

As a usual trend, biotechnologists go on to pursue a PhD and become a scientist. But a lot of students today aspire to combine biotech and management and grow in the industrial sector. What is your career advice to them? How should they go about pursuing such a domain?

It’s a very emerging field honestly. There aren’t many professional certifications for it yet. But there are courses like MBA in pharmacy, Biotechnology Management, then there are secondary options like supply chain management, regulatory affair certification to pursue. It’s refreshing to see students trying to widen their horizon and make bold choices.

What’s next? Learning about your dynamic entrepreneurial profile, we are excited to know what’s your next project? How do you intend to promote our field further in India?

My goal is to build a research community for our field, to make various research groups and fuel innovation from these groups. We are in the initial stage of these research groups at Bioriidl but I want to take this to a bigger and more accessible level. I want us to be able to find efficient solutions to bigger problems, like even the pandemic at hand. We want to become the next media lab and a prominent research community.

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