Taking baby steps into the nano world

India Inc is waking up to nanotechnology, and this promises to change the way you live—whether by arresting the biological ageing process or curing diseases, such as cancer, diabetes and HIV-AIDS, or even bringing out the best from shampoos and airconditioners. A report by Nitya Varadarajan.

Vinay Kumar Tripathy does not fit the copybook description of the absent-minded scientist. At 72, the CEO of Virtus Techno Innovations, a company specialising in applied nanotechnology, stands tall and fit. He is excited at the prospects of bio-mimicry, a science so esoteric that most laymen would label it science fiction. Today, he thinks, his company is close to finding a solution to an age-old human quest—of being able to arrest the biological ageing process.

Virtus Technos Tripathy: Small is beautiful
Vinay Kumar Tripathy
“The human genome, which remains active in childhood and adolescence, becomes dormant in the late twenties. We are using nanotechnology to reactivate these genes. This helps arrest the process of biological ageing and enables man to fight diseases better,” he says. It has taken Virtus 11 years of intense research to reach this stage. The company has applied for patents not only for a gene repair therapy called Mitsanika, but for various other bio-engineering applications using nanotechnology in the US and a couple of other countries.

Clinical trials for Mitsanika, conducted on 840 people, have shown encouraging results. “We have found substantial reduction in blood pressure, and significant improvements in patients suffering from cancer, diabetes and HIVAIDS,” says Tripathy, adding quickly: “This technique will not cure these diseases; it will only enable the body to fight them better by reactivating the immune system that had gone mute.”

 The early adopters

The following companies are engaged in nanotechnology R&D, though final consumer-oriented products are still some way off.

Dabur Pharma: Launched anti-cancer drug Nanoxel last year and is launching Docetaxel this year using nanotech drug delivery.

Tata Group: Experimenting with nanotech to make fertilisers more efficacious and its vehicles lighter and stronger.

Mahindra & Mahindra: Working on developing auto windscreens that don’t need wipers.

Hindustan Unilever: Developing sunscreen lotions and anti-ageing creams for an enhanced effect.

Asian Paints, Nerolac, Nippon Paint: Developing paints with functional properties beyond mere decoration; also planning to replace semi-conducting materials with nano materials.

Eureka Forbes: Uses a technology for its water filter, developed by IIT Madras, to remove pesticides from water with the help of silver nano particles.

Says Claudine Cholerae, a French national and Director of Barclays Bank, Hong Kong, who was suffering for many years from acute candida, a persistent fungal disorder of the skin owing to a dysfunctional immune system. “I found this treatment amazing. Though I could be treated at only 40 per cent efficiency owing to my schedule, I was completely cured in under a month.”

Surendera Tyagi, Chief Scientific Officer, Dabur Pharma
Surendera Tyagi
Nanotechnology has other applications as well. Garnier has brought in its international range of shampoos that make use of nano applications. Here, the molecular structure of titanium dioxide has been suitably altered to suit a shampoo application, resulting in better bounce and lustre. Then, Samsung has successfully used nanotechnology in its washing machines and airconditioners. Says Ravinder Zutshi, Deputy Managing Director, Samsung India: “The technology has given a tremendous boost to the sales of our washing machines.”

The technology, sourced from Korea, removes odour and bacteria from clothes more efficiently than other methods.

Thus, nanotechnology applications in traditional products make them more efficacious. But the technology has still not caught on in India in a big way, though several Indian and multinational companies such as Reliance Industries, the Tata Group, Mahindra & Mahindra, Intel, General Electric and General Motors are investing in it.

Ramgopal Rao, Professor, Electrical Engineering Department, IIT Bombay
Ramgopal Rao
But what is nanotechnology? Put simply, it involves the engineering of functional systems at the molecular, or nano, scale. To get an idea of just how small this is, consider this: 1 nanometer is onebillionth of a metre. That is the length a man’s beard grows in the time it takes him to lift a razor from its stand to his cheeks.

Engineering at that scale can change every paradigm of the industrial and postindustrial age. “Imagine a medical device that travels through the human body to seek out and destroy small clusters of cancerous cells before they can spread. Or a box no larger than a sugar cube that contains the entire contents of the (US) Library of Congress. Or materials much lighter than steel that possess 10 times as much strength,” says a US National Science Foundation document on the advantages of nanotechnology.

Dabur Pharma, which was recently acquired by the Singaporebased Fresenius Kabi, is using nanotechnology for a novel cancer drug delivery system. “This will continue to be our focus,” says Dr Surendera Tyagi, Chief Scientific Officer at the company. It has used nanotechnology to increase patients’ tolerance to the anti-cancer drug Paclitaxel. The company spends more than 10 per cent of its sales of Rs 2,396 crore on R&D and plans to launch other products (using novel drug delivery systems) by 2009-10.

“There should be out-of-thebox thinking; we should not mimic the West,” says Krishna Ella, Chairman, Bharat Biotech, which is conducting nanotechnology research on products (like oestrogen therapy) reportedly using herbal bases. “My goal is to come out with one product that is eye-catching and different, which will catch global attention,” he says. Adds Kamal Nandi, Vice President, Godrej & Boyce Manufacturing Company, which uses nanotechnology quite extensively in components it makes for the Indian Space Research Organisation: “Our appliances division is working on a refrigerator compressor using this technology. It will greatly reduce the size of the compressor without compromising on its functionality.”

 Too little, too late

The Government Of India has woken up, rather belatedly, to the potential of nanotechnology. It is planning to invest Rs 1,000 crore on it during the 11th Five Year Plan to build, ground up, the nanotech industry in India. The Ministry of Science & Technology has launched a Nanotech Mission that will fund R&D by industry and also give grants to leading educational and research institutes engaged in nanotech research. The plan envisages developing cutting-edge products and services in drug delivery, cosmetics, consumer durables and engineering.

Earlier, in 2001, the Ministry had launched the Nano Science & Technology Initiative (NSTI) under the chairmanship of C.N.R. Rao to seed the industry in India. NSTI, which received allocations of about Rs 75 crore from the government, has financed over 100 projects over five years.

These initiatives, including the latest one, however, are just a drop in the ocean. According to official statistics, the government has spent only about Rs 250 crore to encourage nanotechnology so far. Clearly, it needs to do much more—and also provide long-term fiscal and other incentives—if India is to realise its potential in this breakthrough science.

The Bangalore-based Velbionanotech, a bio-nanotechnology product development company, has developed nanotech-based treatments for atherosclerosis (arterial plaque), nephrolithiasis, (stone in the urinary tract) and diabetes. Joseph Asantraj, its founder and CEO, says the company has filed patents in the US for these products, which are currently undergoing clinical trials. He is expecting to license them to Pfizer for $500 million (Rs 2,000 crore) each.

Joseph Asantraj, Founder and CEO, Velbionanotech
Joseph Asantraj
Nanotechnology can potentially be widely used in the auto, electronics and electrical, non-ferrous casting, power, engineering, garment manufacturing, sugar, and metals industries, but in India, at least, it is mainly being used by companies in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology spaces.

At IIT Bombay, Ramgopal Rao, Professor, Electrical Engineering Department, and his team have developed i-sens, a cardiac diagnostic device that uses nanotechnology for blood analysis. The device diagnoses heart conditions, and, importantly, imminent cardiac attacks. It is currently undergoing field trials. Vimti Banerjee, Associate Professor, School of Biosciences & Bioengineering, IIT Bombay, has developed a drug for lung cancer that is inhaled in the form of nano particles through an aerosol spray. “We have received enquiries from companies interested in this product and clinical trials could be completed in under a year,” she says.

But despite these achievements, the nanotechnology industry in India still faces considerable challenges. It is highly capital intensive and the conceptto-product gestation period is very long. “The biggest challenge for nano-biotechnology is to offer cutting-edge solutions at affordable prices,’’ says Shivani Shukla Raval, Industry Manager, Healthcare Practice, Frost & Sullivan, South Asia and Middle East. Then, little is known about their safety not only to humans but also to the environment.

And India’s advantage in having a large base of skilled manpower is offset by a shortage of experienced techno-commercial personnel who can exploit the commercial potential of this technology. “Also, the infrastructure to support entrepreneurial activity, of the type that fed the IT boom, is missing,” Raval says. Venture capitalists have still not cottoned on to this sector and technopreuners find it difficult to access both funding and skilled personnel for their projects.

Vimti Banerjee, Associate Professor, IIT Bombay
Vimti Banerjee
ICICI Venture, for instance, only looks at companies that have crossed the venture funding stage and are ready for private equity. The Pune-based IndiaCo, a venture capital company, has funded only one company that makes nano-positioning products. The end-users of this product are R&D labs, and the electronics, biotechnology industries where it is vital to control the position of an object at the nano level. Says Praveena Chandra, Vice President, IndiaCo: “We have worked with this company for three years, and we are looking at some others.” Globally, only three out of 100 nanotechnology projects make money for investors; so, investors are understandably cautious. Typically, PE funding for pure play IP companies in the nanotechnology segment would be at least Rs 4 crore. Admits Asantraj: “It is difficult for start-up companies, though we faced no problems.”

This probably explains the inadequate interest from the Indian industry, which despite the technology potential, is still only at the stage of pilot trials. “We are nowhere near exploiting the full potential of the technology,” says Anurag Gupta, CEO of Yash Nanotech, adding: “There is a lot of hype and there are many waiting in the wings. It is a question of who will burn his fingers first. Then, the others will cautiously follow the leader.”

Globally, nanotechnology is expected to spawn a $1 trillion (Rs 40 lakh crore) market by 2010, and given the right impetus, India can emerge as a huge nanotech hub, as in the case of information technology. Given this potential, it’s just a matter of time before this trickle turns into a deluge.