Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Nov 09, 2020
As the ecosystem evolves and companies mature, there are dire requirements for the next phase of innovation driven growth.
String Bio: Integrated methane platform for next-gen sustainable ingredients

ORF: What is String Bio’s comprehensive vision for a sustainable future?

Ezhil Subbian: The last few decades have seen a rising toll placed on our ecosystems as we race to meet the demands for food, feed and consumer products of a growing population. The result of this is a huge negative impact on life and the environment around us. Solutions that can address this growing demand sustainably are urgently needed. String’s technology enables next generation raw materials that can deliver such solutions. String has built intellectual property (IP) protected technologies (String Integrated Methane Platform) that allows us to produce essential raw materials for everyday living from methane. Our products focus areas are alternative proteins for the feed and food market (fermented microbial proteins that are clean, safe, traceable, high-quality and scalable), and agricultural productivity (methane derived, chemical-free, natural biostimulants that can restore soil health and enhance crop yield).

String’s vision is a world where raw materials are locally manufactured in a sustainable manner, where cleaner and better ways of living are enabled by leveraging biological advances efficiently. The last few decades have seen massive advancement in our understanding of biology. We believe that biology presents simple solutions to complex problems that can be leveraged to return balance to ecosystems.

Our mission is simple: to leverage the power of biology to enable sustainable and scalable solutions in sectors that are fundamental to living. Our impacts are in enabling localised manufacturing that provide economically competitive alternatives; leveraging the carbon in greenhouse gases to build strong value chains; enabling safe, organic and natural alternatives; enabling inherent circularity in living; and enabling the transition to value chains that are economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.

ORF: How do you envision expanding into global markets while keeping your research and development pipeline rooted in India?

ES: String’s vision is to enable supply chain efficiencies through localised manufacturing and consumption. Hence while the core research and development work is in India, our end markets have always been global. This has been our driver right from initiation.

To enable localised manufacturing and consumption in different markets, we are building relationships with strategic partners both on the supply and the market side in different geographies based on market demand for products. Our long-term vision is to enable clusters of gas-manufacturing-product supply chains relevant for that market.

We envision the research and development set up in India continuing to support the clusters with advances in technology, efficiency and products. This year (2020) has highlighted how businesses can be run globally even if face-to-face interactions and travel are significantly restricted. This means that delivering solutions for global markets from India should be easier now than ever before.

ORF: How have India’s early-stage innovation support systems enabled you to develop the String Bio platform solution? And what policies could India strengthen to promote a stronger innovation-driven environment?

ES: The early-stage innovation support system, primarily funding and infrastructure for biotech startups have seen a dramatic change in the last five years in India.

When String started operations in Bengaluru in 2014, there were only two incubators supporting biotech startups in the city, and their focus was not exclusively on incubation. Incubation was one of the focus areas in addition to their core presence in education and research. String was lucky to find a place in one to start operations.

However, it is a completely different scenario in 2020. There are at least ten different incubation facilities for biotech companies in Bengaluru, if not more. The primary focus for them is providing high-end infrastructure required for early stage biotech work. And some of the bigger facilities, such as Bangalore Bioinnovation Center and C-CAMP, are expanding their infrastructure to accommodate more incubatees.

One of the key drivers for this massive change is funding initiatives from the central and state governments. The central government’s Department of Biotechnology’s BIRAC and their numerous funding schemes to make high risk capital available for biotech ventures has catalysed the change in the ecosystem. The Karnataka government has mirrored the effort with state level funding schemes, which is another key driver enabling early stage innovation.

String has benefited a lot from starting operations at the ‘right’ time in Bengaluru. We have been fortunate to ride the wave as the innovation ecosystem has evolved. We have leveraged grant funding from BIRAC as well as from Karnataka state government for our initial work. We have also extensively leveraged the incubation facilities before moving into our own premises.

Our hope now is that the government does not slow down its effort to enable innovation in India. As the ecosystem evolves and companies mature, there are dire requirements for the next phase of innovation driven growth. Some of the requirements/policies that can be truly enabling are pilot scale manufacturing/testing facilities; plug and play commercial manufacturing parks; regulatory clarity required to bring new home-grown products to market; ease of bringing FDI to support next phase of growth; and strong legal environment to support IP protected innovation.

ORF: Given your extensive and global technology development experience, what lessons you can share for making research and development more exciting?

ES: One day I hope to write a book about my experiences with interviewing and hiring for roles at String. While it feels like I have seen the entire gamut of folks walk through the interview room, unfortunately, the majority do not know why they want to make a living working in biotechnology. This is not an issue for some type of roles. But when the requirement is technology and innovation, this can be a major challenge.

The attitude, aptitude, and diversity of thought on the teams driving the effort is one of the key factors to make research and development more exciting and products market relevant. String’s operating culture has been to provide folks the freedom to execute on the work that they are responsible for. This was a necessity when we were a small team. We have kept the same spirit as we grow in numbers. Finding the folks who have the attitude to make the right judgement calls and who can drive their responsibilities with passion and efficiency was not easy. However, this has made a clear difference to our growth.

Changes in the education system that encourages students at all levels to learn, explore and dabble can make a huge impact in making this easier. Another aspect that requires attention is the difficulty in having diversity on teams that are technology driven in the current environment in India. Women find in difficult to stay in the workforce once family responsibilities increase. Enablers such as quality daycare centers, daycare centers within technology/incubation parks, pre-approved emergency caregivers made available through work and encouraging paternity leave have made a huge difference to support women in other ecosystems that I have worked in. This is a clear gap even in metros like Bengaluru. As the startup ecosystems evolve, perhaps companies can come together to build this support network.

Another opportunity for exciting research and development is to enable better collaborations/partnerships between academia and industry in the biotech sector. There is a vast gap right now. Bridging this can make a difference to both sides — academic research can be a treasure trove for industry and being tuned into real world needs can attract huge funds for academic research.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Ezhil Subbian

Ezhil Subbian

Ezhil Subbian is co-founder and CEO of String Bio.

Read More +