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Monday, April 09, 2001

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Biotech research company's commercial plans

By N. Gopal Raj

BANGALORE, APRIL 8. If Avesthagen Graine were based in the U.S., it probably would not attract much attention. A small biotechnology company started by an academic-entrepreneur with bright ideas and big plans to develop commercially valuable intellectual property. But if biotechnology is to follow information technology as a money-spinner for India, many more such companies will need to come up and succeed.

Dr. Villoo Morawala-Patell, who started the company and is still its chief scientist, is a plant molecular biologist with academic affiliations to the National Centre for Biological Sciences and the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore. Avesthagen Graine began functioning only in September 1999 and its new laboratories at the International Technology Park in Bangalore were opened recently by the Karnataka Chief Minister, Mr. S. M. Krishna.

The company operates in a number of closely-related areas in plant molecular biology, including gene and genome sequencing, bioinformatics, gene expression and plant transformation, marker- aided selection and proteomics. It uses its expertise in these areas for developing its own ideas as well as to earn revenue through contract research for other companies. The company's goal is to develop intellectual property which would be commercially valuable and could therefore be licensed to seed companies in India and abroad, says Dr. Patell. It would also offer R&D services worldwide.

Avesthagen is sequencing the Basmati rice genome and plans to make its data available in due course to the international rice genome sequencing effort. It is also working on the genome of the ``Swarna'' variety of rice. It wants to clone the genes controlling aroma so that rice quality can be enhanced. It is also looking at ways to improve the environmental stress tolerance of rice plants. The company had already filed a number of patent applications.

Apart from rice, it has also taken up work on millets. Although millets are considered ``inferior'' grains, they are important as animal feed and are likely to gain increasing acceptance for human consumption as nutritious, high-fibre food. Avesthagen is seeking to patent its ways of introducing genes into millets.

The biotech company has been undertaking a variety of contract research for Indian and foreign companies. One area of contract work has been with genetic markers for aiding conventional breeding. It is also working on introducing therapeutic proteins for some pharmaceutical companies. Avesthagen has received equity investment from ICICI Ventures and Global Trust Bank. It expects to go in for a second round of funding in a few months.

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