Biotechnology: The new biotech buzz

With informed opinion veering towards marrying science with nature, career opportunities are multiplying in geometric progression

With the waning of the IT boom and attendant euphoria, the new buzzword is biotech. Suddenly biotechnology is the most active sector of the rapidly globalising economy with India emerging as a global hub. And the flow of investment into this sector indicates it will continue to be hot for quite some time as this technology focuses on the development of the life sciences. With informed opinion around the world veering towards marrying science with nature in agriculture, healthcare, energy, and environment management, career opportunities in this 21st century industry are multiplying in geometric progression.

The Indian biotech industry reported revenues in excess of $1 billion in 2005–06. Government of India has prepared a draft biotech strategy for the next decade which projects an industry revenue of $5 billion (Rs.200 crore) and generating a million jobs by 2010.

Genetic profiling (or genome mapping which enables the medical community to identify disease-causing genes), bioinformatics (convergence of biotech with IT), biomedical engineering (replacing human body parts with engineered replacements), drug development, genetic modifications (engineering genes to produce desired characteristics), and agricultural biotechnology (to develop genetically modified crops and food products) are new generation industries which will need armies of qualified employees. The type of work in all biotech industries is essentially scientific and research-oriented whether in research establishments run by government or in the R&D cells of corporate sector enterprises. Employment  creation in biotechnology is ten times greater than in other sectors of the larger life sciences industry.

Specialised education in biotechnology after completing Plus Two or equivalent examinations (in physics, chemistry, mathematics, and/or biology) is provided by the Indian Institutes of Technology at Delhi and Kharagpur. In IIT-Delhi, an integrated five-year M.Tech programme in biochemical engineering and biotechnology is offered, while IIT-Kharagpur offers an integrated M.Tech programme of five and a half years in biotechnology.

Admission into the IIT programmes is based on student-applicant's performance in the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) of the IITs. The JEE is held usually in the month of May every year and the institutes announce the exact dates about seven to eight months in advance.

In universities biotech is usually offered as a postgrad subject. Eligibility for admission into a Master’s biotechnology programme is an undergraduate degree in biology, physics, agriculture, veterinary sciences, engineering, medicine, forestry, or fisheries, with an average of at least 55 percent. However as a rule, only those with very high percentages and bright academic records are selected. The Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, conducts a combined entrance examination (usually held in May) every year for admission into the M.Sc biotechnology programmes of Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi; Pondicherry University; M.S. University, Baroda; Pune University; Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya, Indore; Goa University; Guru Nanak Dev University; Central University, Hyderabad; Madurai Kamaraj University; Punjab University, Chandigarh; G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, Pantnagar; Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; and Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore.

The top 10 public institutes offering postgraduate and doctoral study programmes are:

Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotech, Thiruvananthapuram
Bioinformatics Centre, Pune
School of Life Sciences, Hyderabad
Centre for Biotech, Anna University, Chennai
Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai
B.C. Guha Centre for Engineering & Biotech, Kolkata
University School of Biotech, Indraprastha University, Delhi
Biotech Department, University of Kashmir, Hazratbal
Centre for Biotech, JNU, New Delhi
School of Biotech, Kamraj University, Madurai

Dr. Jayesh R. Bellare is the first head of IIT-Bombay’s Bhupat and Jyoti Mehta School of Biosciences and Bioengineering. He is also professor of chemical engineering at IIT-B. A chemical engineering graduate of IIT-B, like most IIT graduates, Bellare proceeded to the US for higher study and was awarded his Ph D (1988) in chemical engineering and material sciences by the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

“With the promotion of the Bhupat and Jyoti Mehta School of Biosciences and Bioengineering which offers an M.Sc course in biotechnology and an M.Tech course in biomedical engineering, IIT-B has been quick to anticipate a sharp rise in the demand for biotechnologists and biomedical engineers. As a consequence many medical school graduates are applying for our M.Tech biomedical engineering programme — a two-year course for engineers and doctors which is proving very popular,” says Bellare.

According to Bellare, IIT-Kharagpur has also introduced an M.Tech programme in biomedical engineering as have IIT Guwahati and IIT-Madras. “We’ll also be expanding our new institute and increasing our student in-take capacity. With biotechnology be-coming a very important and rapidly expanding industry, it should be mandatory for students in the science stream to read biology and maths at the Plus Two level,” he adds.

This is good advice because job opportunities in the biotech and related industries are multiplying. Currently, most of the M.Sc (biotechnology) graduates are being grabbed by pharmaceutical companies such as Nicholas Piramal and Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories among others. And the pay is good as well. Within a year, pay packages are likely to swell upward of Rs.3.5–4 lakh per year. There are employment opportunities also in the chemical industry, in agriculture, and allied industries as well as in research laboratories run by government and the corporate sector. Those with good computer and/or lab skills have a particularly bright future, says Bellare.

Bellare predicts the current boom in the biotech and related industries will persist for at least the next ten years. “The manufacture of customised medicines for individuals is very much on the cards and it’s quite possible that an individual’s entire health and well-being will become dependent on biotechnologists. Moreover the benefits of biotechnology will extend beyond humans — to pets, livestock, marine life, agriculture etc. The world is certain to need a lot of people with biotech qualifications in the near future,” says Bellare.