The Covid-19 pandemic has shone the spotlight on the world’s leading academic institutions, which have been at the forefront in the fight against Covid-19. Take the University of Oxford in the U.K. It’s under-development vaccine for Covid-19 is being keenly followed and, if successful, could be a game changer.
Back home in India, the country’s premier science institute, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bangalore, is also mobilising its talent, resources and funds to fight the pandemic, which has significantly gained momentum over the last few months. At the centre of all the action is IISc’s Society of Innovation and Development (SID), which was founded in 1991.
SID strives to bring leading intellectuals of IISc, and the fruits of their research and development efforts closer to industries and business establishments. Around 10 startups that have been incubated at the SID have developed and are developing solutions to combat the outbreak. Top among the list is a vaccine for Covid-19, which is undergoing clinical trials.
C.S. Murali, chairman of the Entrepreneurship Cell at SID gives Fortune India a round up for all the innovations happening within the institute. Edited excerpts of his interview:
What has been SID’s response to fighting the Covid-19 pandemic?
We had many startups present on campus pursuing various ideas based on market opportunities. As soon as Covid-19 happened, some of them repurposed what they were doing to find solutions in the fight against Covid-19. For example, consider Mynvax, a three-year old startup incubated at IISc that was developing a vaccine for influenza. [The IISc-incubated startup develops next-generation vaccines for influenza using a recombinant technology. Raghavan Varadarajan, co-founder of Mynvax is a professor at the Molecular Biophysics Unit, IISc.]
Every year there is a new strain of the influenza virus and a lot of people take flu shots. It’s a very common trend in the West, but not so common in India. Most of the existing vaccines that have been developed for influenza only deal with a particular strain of the virus. What Mynvax was trying to do was to develop a vaccine which would be effective for a large number of strains. As soon as the World Health Organisation released the DNA and RNA of the Covid-19 virus, Mynvax started focusing on developing and building a vaccine for it.
What has been the progress?
They have finished the animal trials and tested the vaccine on mice. All the results so far have been very promising. Now they are looking to do two more levels of animal testing in Australia, including on ferrets and hamsters. They are expected to complete the animal trials by December, after which they will be ready for the human clinical trials.
How expensive will this vaccine be?
It is tough to comment on the pricing at this stage. But the techniques that they are using to develop the vaccine will help them to produce it in large quantities and will also make it more affordable. I really don’t have the specifics at this point on what could be the pricing.
Is SID funding Mynvax for its vaccine development?
We don’t have the money to fund startups. We provide the lab space, access to knowledge, equipment, and other resources. We, as an institute, typically get money either from government grants or CSR grants that we sometimes use for seed funding startups.
In the case of Mynvax, since they are working on a Covid-19 vaccine, they have got grants from large corporates and the government as well. Before they started working on the Covid-19 vaccine, Mynvax had raised approximately $2.5 million (about ₹15 crore). And after they started work on the Covid-19 vaccine they have raised about ₹4 crore.
Overall, we have raised (grants from government and corporates) about ₹7 crore for repurposing work in the fight against Covid-19. The bulk has gone to Mynvax, followed by another startup, Azooka Life Sciences.
Can you tell us more on the work that Azooka is doing?
They are working on a stain that is used in DNA and RNA testing. [Started in 2016, Azooka is a specialty fluorescent dye company that produces a new class of safe stains and consumables for genomics research and molecular diagnostics.] Again, when Covid-19 hit, they quickly repurposed some of the work they were doing.
Since Covid-19 is highly infectious, people at testing facilities can easily get infected. Azooka has developed an additive (like a preservative) to deactivate the virus. Meaning: once a swab sample is taken from a patient this additive can be used to deactivate the virus, making it harmless for people in testing labs. A few months ago the company got an approval from the Indian Council of Medical Research for the use of the product.
Are there any other research around Covid-19 that is happening?
Besides the startups, we also had some researchers within IISc who started work around Covid-19. One such group of researchers have developed a ventilator. They have completed the design and are collaborating with a private company to manufacture the product. Ventilators will be a long-term requirement for the country considering the rising number of Covid-19 cases. Besides, it’s a product that is crucial in the upgrade of the healthcare infrastructure across the country. There is also a group of computer scientists who are working on analysing the sound of coughing through a stethoscope to detect if a patient is Covid-19 positive. But it’s still a work in progress.