Healthcare innovation

Conceptualising Bio-X-Labs

Conceptualising Bio-X-Labs

How can students be encouraged to turn entrepreneurs in biological sciences at an early age

The history of biology as a primary science subject in schools’ dates to 19th century Britain, where it was first introduced in the secondary school curriculum. Formal teaching of biology began in Indian schools with the British’s introduction of the university system. Universities initially offered biology as a subject only in medical universities, but later most universities and colleges in India started offering independent courses in botany and zoology. Later in the 1960s, joint teams from the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) prepared a new curriculum in biology for Indian schools. 

With the growing demands in healthcare, it is only sensible to run a status check on how much biology as a standalone classical science subject in Indian schools has been able to address our country’s healthcare challenges. Our understanding of the Indian healthcare system’s needs strongly points to the fact that offering biology as a subject in classrooms or laboratories is not enough to rapidly solve the current and future healthcare challenges in India. It is essential to establish a linkage through evidence-based studies between what is taught in schools and what comes out as entrepreneurial value addition and school boards have lot of work to do in the process.

An approach to healthcare entrepreneurship – start early, empathise before ideating: Neuroscience researchers over the years have found the human brain to be highly plastic. Interestingly, the human brain keeps changing significantly in structure and function throughout one’s lifetime, especially during childhood and adolescence, due to experience or training. So, what impact does constant training and everyday experience create in the minds of school-going students that sow the seeds of healthcare entrepreneurial wisdom? The hypothesis that we present in this article states – ‘Topped with empathy, biology as a basic science coupled with a knowhow of how to apply biology to solve practical healthcare problems (applied science), supported by a state-of-art infrastructure, can help set up a culture of bio-entrepreneurial thinking in schools’. Put this hypothesis to test in schools, and India is guaranteed to receive a constant supply of bio-entrepreneurs in line with the country’s future healthcare needs. 

We wish it were that simple! What has been missing in our bio-entrepreneurial ecosystem till now is a lack of empathy. Empathy is the first step of any design-thinking process, but unfortunately, it is the single most-overlooked ingredient of innovation, more so, healthcare innovations. Every great innovation in history has come from a place of empathy because creation so often arises out of someone’s frustration. Steve Jobs, when he was frustrated with the fact that he could not carry his library of music around in his pocket, he designed the iPod. Jobs believed that others might share his frustration, so he could empathise before ideating the prototype for the iPod. 

In the context of healthcare, there exists a strong connection between how well a healthcare entrepreneur empathises with a problem and the quality of innovations the entrepreneur tends to deliver. And since healthcare primary aims to limit human sufferings, if healthcare entrepreneurs are unable to relate and empathise, they will never provide an excellent healthcare product or a service. 

The Know/Feel Model – the shift from conventional Bio labs to Bio-innovation labs: What we know and feel, stays longer in our memory than what we know and don’t feel. A study by Strijbosch & Mitas et al. in 2009 found a strong correlation between experiences and memories of those experiences. Moreover, a range of psychological literature has studied and reported the relationship between memory and experience. One critical finding in this space has been to elucidate the role of emotions in shaping the memory of an experience. Unlike non-emotional experiences, experiential episodes that include feelings are remembered more vividly and in greater detail. Emotions arising from a single experience, or a series of experiences play a crucial role in determining whether an individual can build a castle out of those experience(s). In the case of entrepreneurship, knowing and feeling about a product or service can kindle a spark in the young minds to pursue a career in entrepreneurship and innovation. The know or feel approach can help build empathy in young minds, and this holds special significance in the case of healthcare entrepreneurship (as discussed in one of the earlier sections of the article). Therefore, how individuals remember the emotions from their experiences may be just as important as the experienced emotions themselves in guiding subsequent behaviour. 

Heraclitus once famously said – “The only constant in life is change.” Providing accessible, affordable, and comprehensive healthcare services to 1.3 billion citizens will not be a simple target to achieve but not impossible for sure. If India has to reach the elusive $5 trillion and then to a $10 trillion economy, healthcare will continue to take centre stage. 

Emerging technologies like Blockchain, AI/ML, Big Data, Cloud computing, IoT, Quantum computing and AR/VR are shaping how businesses will be run in the coming decade. And therefore, healthcare entrepreneurs of tomorrow will need to continuously upgrade their skill set to meet the healthcare needs of the nation. With a new set of innovations finding its way to the world every day, the real need of the hour is to not only enhance the quality of the final product but also ensure its accessibility to the user. Improving upon the current technology and experimenting with it to understand its stability is essential, but once an entrepreneur realises its applications, it is paramount to let people use it. 

Schools must understand that entrepreneurial teaching skills are not just about good business practices; instead, they should focus on helping students to view entrepreneurship as a lens. It is about helping young students understand that being an entrepreneur means seeing things for what they could be, not what they are. When this lens is applied early, it ultimately shapes the future of healthcare innovations in India over the next decade. The approach toward setting up a healthcare innovation infrastructure to support the know/feel model in primary schools will require more than what conventional biology laboratories have been offering till now. The time has now come for schools to provide the necessary means and resources that can stimulate inventive and innovative thinking as part of the normal development process of students. 

Introducing Bio-(X)-Labs (BXLs)

Specialisation is the key and not just specialisation at a late age; we are talking about early specialisation. The goal is to catch them young and provide them with specialised training facilities. Enter Bio-(X)-Labs or BXLs. Bio-(X)-Labs (BXLs) can help build a platform for healthcare entrepreneurial design thinking in schools. 

The basic principle on which a BXL works is as follows:

Feeling + Knowledge = Empathy creation 

In today’s highly competitive atmosphere, the survival of healthcare institutions depends mainly on the ability to provide value-added services (VAS) at the lowest possible cost. BXLs move away from just performing experiments in a biology laboratory to understanding what value addition means in healthcare. As ‘X’ in a Bio-(X)-Labs signifies that value addition. 

On a typical day, when you would enter into a BXL, you will find that some students would be building a Kiwi DNA extraction kit in one corner, whereas in another corner, some super innovative kids would be producing glowing bacteria that fluoresce different colours. To do so, such a BXL would be equipped with culture tubes, falcon tubes, spectrophotometer (or colorimeter), micropipette and sterile tips, sterile broth for growing bacteria, vortex mixers, incubators, power supplies for gel and electrophoresis and so on. This would allow students to better understand the importance of biotechnology in the 21st century rather than just studying biotechnology for a school examination. The BXL would allow students to touch and feel various aspects of biotechnology, thus satisfying the component of ‘feeling’ in equation-A.

The students would run these experiments under expert supervision. The ‘knowledge’ component in the equation-A is provided by the subject matter experts (SMEs) and mentors. They would also be discussing the ethical issues, especially the concepts of a cell, chromosome, GMO, identification of GM foods in their diet, pros and cons of GM foods, DNA, gene, comparison of traditional methods of plant breeding and modern techniques of genetic engineering, and importance of responsible use of technology with the students. 

If a student has come up with a ground-breaking startup idea, blended finance models could be explored wherein the students can raise debts early on in their startup journey. BXLs, if planned and executed correctly, could be a game-changer. It is extremely essential for any nation to impart twenty-first-century skills in biotechnology to their children at an early age and let their interests and passion develop in such STEM subjects.