Rara Biotech: Using Biotechnology to Develop Innovative Agricultural Solutions

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Sumeena Karki is the CEO and Founder of the company Rara Biotech, and a role model for female scientists and entrepreneurs in Nepal. The organization is focused on developing innovative biotechnology solutions to various problems in Nepal. Currently, they are focused on improving agricultural methods and livestock farming using their research. They are in the process of developing an early pregnancy detection kit for cattle and an innovative mushroom farming technique that also incorporates the utilization of agricultural waste. Sumeena explains the need for more science-based research organizations as well as educational degrees such as Biotech-MBAs that prepare scientists to work in an entrepreneurial environment.

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1. Could you please give us a general introduction to your team and organization?
Rara biotech is a young and disruptive company with the aim of learning through experiences, creating local technologies and solving their pressing problems. We have a team of 12 members, mostly female and our main focus is to address agricultural and livestock issues using biotech solutions. Most of us are biotechnology students, some with their Bachelor’s, some have their Master’s and a few have PhDs. We also have a team member with a business background. We registered our company in March last year, before that we won a startup competition called the Nepal-Swiss Technology Transfer organized by NepSAS with our project of developing rapid pregnancy detection kits for cattle. That’s where we formed the initial group of six that the organization started.
We were also the winners recognized as the best start-up of Nepal at the World Innovation Forum 2018 competition.
We are working in two locations now, there is a lab in Satdobato where we do research for the pregnancy kits under Shikhar Biotech Pvt. Ltd and research related to mushroom farming in collaboration with Mush Nepal Pvt. at Balambu. With aim of being a bridge between university and a private company, we are working in collaboration to set a culture of doing application-based research that helps both industries as well as students to get skilled during their thesis itself helping them in their entrepreneurial journey. Currently, we have 6 students from AITM working in 2 projects as their thesis.

2. What projects is your organization currently working on?
We have two major projects right now, the first one is the pregnancy detection kit for cattle which is still in the research and development phase. The second project is related to mushroom farming, we are trying to grow mushrooms on artificial logs so that they can be grown all year-round instead of just for a few months each year. Others are a total of research-based projects. 

3. What was the project that you presented at the Smart Urban Tech Challenge?
At the SUTC our idea was focused on waste management. The idea was to use a specific variety of the black soldier fly to convert organic solid waste into a substrate which would be perfect for mushroom cultivation. The black soldier fly (BSF) larvae only decompose the organic waste partially which creates an organic material ideal for mushrooms to grow. We plan on using agricultural waste to produce this compost material. Using BSF has two benefits at a time; one we can use larvae as animal feed and the other is the compost.
This compost can also be decomposed further and sold as fertilizer using vermiculture but we’re working on mushroom farming so we know exactly what kind of input they need to grow. It made sense to incorporate the two ideas together because the compost formed by partial decomposition of agricultural waste has an added nutritional value which is good for the productivity of mushrooms. 

3. Do you plan on focusing on agricultural issues or are you interested in expanding towards other fields as well?
Our focus was on doing a lean start-up since we didn’t have significant funding to begin with so we were looking for ideas that required a minimal investment but a high return once it took off. After this project is established we are hoping to venture into other interesting research projects as well.
So, our first few projects were ideated with the revenue in mind. As we continue working, we’d like to develop detection kits for certain kinds of diseases and we’re exploring other waste management solutions as well. Another important project we want to work on is the commercialization of specific species native to Nepal in context of biotechnology. For example, there are several varieties of mushrooms available here that are unique to Nepal that could be healthier and taste better too. Right now we only have foreign varieties here. Ideally, we’d be looking into their nutritional values and possibly their medicinal properties as well.

4. How did you fund these projects?
We are a private organization, we did receive some funding for the prototype of the pregnancy kits, but we generate most of the revenue by ourselves.

5. What are the challenges you faced when starting this organization?
When we were registering the organization, the first problem we ran into was the lack of management expertise. We had all the information and background necessary as biotech professionals but running and managing a company was quite hard. Even when we applied to competitions we weren’t introduced to business terms like break-even point. We thought some of us would have to get MBAs but then we discovered an incubation program called “Bridge for Billions.” We won the contest at Start-up Mela and got into the incubation program which taught us the basics of business. We were very fortunate to have won that competition and gotten into the incubation program but not all organizations have these opportunities. 

The SUTC program was supportive too, they gave us whatever training they could. However, as a government-organized contest, we wanted to know what support they could provide for start-ups, but that was something that they couldn’t support and things seemed insufficient. Some organizations received a lot of support, but ones that were primarily science-based, like ours, have very little support. Even the policies are insufficient, when we were trying to register the company, we had to either register as a pharmacy or as an agriculture-based company. We don’t actually fall under either one of those categories, so there needs to be a policy update that creates more flexibility or broadness for science and research-based businesses to function. 

6. What are the current needs of your company?
I think a flexible investor is what we need the most, someone who can help us strategically. Besides that, we have all the resources we need and if we had the funding we could invest in other resources too. So, we either need an investor or a bank that can provide us with a loan with low interest. 

7. What are your views on entrepreneurship?
Pursuing entrepreneurship in Nepal requires immense patience. Current incubation programs only focus on receiving exposure and bringing you in the limelight. Entrepreneurship is hard in initial days in Nepal, you have to be ready to face economic, social and mental challenges. You should be curious, multitasking and a fast learner. It is a constant struggle and fun at the same time. You must accept the fact that you won’t generate a profit for the first few years and will probably need support from your family. When it comes to people like us in the scientific field it becomes more challenging to choose something different than the standard track of getting a Doctorate which makes sense too.
It’s their contribution to hard work and research that allows us to enjoy the benefits of scientific knowledge, but the current situation of our country demands more scientific entrepreneurs. A Ph.D. provides good opportunities to gain the skills, experience, and money which can be used to start your enterprise. In the upcoming years we will have a huge scope in science-based businesses but the work demands great dedication and patience to generate results. We need greater involvement from private organizations towards investing in skilled manpower and innovation, only then will the true entrepreneur ecosystem blossom.
The main problem I see in most of the entrepreneurs these days is that they are either too obsessed with their idea or become too diverse. People from the science field want to pursue several projects but they need to be decisive and focus on one thing to get started.  Our market is very small so we must think thoroughly before starting anything. Focusing on providing solutions through your skills on current pressing problems will help you establish yourself initially and then you can start to work on your idea in the long run. We only have the next 10 years to sink or swim and the greatest hope for economic upliftment is entrepreneurship. 

8. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Yes, I’d like to mention this especially for people coming from a pure science background that it will be hard initially but there are opportunities to collaborate with other experts either through networking or through interdisciplinary educational programs. For example, in India they have MBAs in Biotechnology, Nepal could greatly benefit from programs like these. There are numerous incubators that provide business training which is great but they seem to be targeting specific fields. It would be a great benefit if there were opportunities for biological science and business schools to collaborate. For people who are in the science field, I would request them to connect with people on the business side and try to incorporate them into your enterprise. Your vision must be clear before you start anything.  Promoting organizations that commercialize innovation and scientific research from the get-go would be beneficial. We need manpower with knowledge of both sectors (technical as well as business) which would reduce the obstacles that we faced when we started our company. It’s always a learning process and if you intend on accomplishing certain goals it will surely happen as long as you believe in yourself. Keep pushing your limits and contribute to building the nation.

For more information about this company, please connect with Sumeena Karki at rarabiotech@gmail.com or check out their website- Rara Biotech here.

Interviewed and article by Jyotika Shah.