This promising Dhulikhel-based startup is trying to give a new dimension to the nascent Nepali biotech industry through agriculture.
Biotechnology, commonly known as biotech, has made rapid strides the world over ever since the start of its commercialisation in the late 1970s. According to a report published by the research firm Global Market Insights, the size of the global biotechnology market is expected to reach over USD 775 billion by 2024. Biotech has a wide array of applications in agriculture (crop production, genetically modified crops and food processing), medical (diagnostics and pharmaceuticals) and waste management, among others.
Nepal is yet to make any noticeable progress in biotech to capitalise on big business deals in the area of research and technology. While the government lacks a clear vision on how to promote biotech, there are a few startups in the country founded by some passionate entrepreneurs who are working to explore the possibilities. Among such entrepreneurs is Chewan Rai who co-founded Kalapas Biotech Pvt Ltd to work in the areas of agriculture, microbiology, herbal medicine and plant biodiversity. Chewan who studied law in college was always interested in doing something on his own from his school days. “My passion has always been working with young people. People say that there are a lot of opportunities in Nepal, but if asked about the potential business areas, we don’t get clear answers. So companies like Kalapas Biotech can be an example to show that these are some of the areas where we have to focus our efforts,” he says.
Kalapas Biotech was established in 2017 by Chewan and Kishnu Ghalan. Later, they were joined by Rukesh Rai, Purna Chandra Lal Rajbhandari and Rajani Amatya Rajbhandari.
Chewan recalls how Kishun frequently approached him with the idea of starting a biotech company. “However, for a year and half, I could not find a reason to work in this field. Moreover, being a student of law, I had no idea about biotech,” he says.
Later, after finding value in this particular field they decided to venture in the area of biotech. They started on a small scale with only a one-room lab at Baneshwor. Now, Kalapas operates a modern and well-equipped laboratory at Dhulikhel. “We commenced with only three varieties of plants – Potato, Paulownia, and Banana. In the beginning, our production capacity was only 20,000 plants a year”, said Chewan adding, “Within six months, we had customers buying those 20,000 plants and demanding 500,000 plants every year.” With the small lab at Baneshwor, they realised that it would be impossible to fulfill the growing demand of the customers. “Hence we leased nine ropanis of lands in Dhulikhel and that’s how we got started,” he says.
Kalapas Biotech was started with an initial investment of Rs 300,000. “Not all have money nor have all the skills. So we have also considered our skills and expertise as an investment,” expresses Chewan.
Products and Services
Kalapas Biotech works on plant tissue culture. They extract a tissue from a high quality plant, clean it and grow it in an artificial environment and propagate it under controlled temperatures. “It is basically cloning a good plant. The best plant tissue is multiplied,” he informs. Chewan claims that tissue culture plants are the highest quality plants and this is the company’s unique selling proposition.
Currently, Kalapas is working on 16 different varieties of plants, among which the company has already made 10 varieties commercially available. Paulownia, potato, three varieties of banana, strawberry, lemon and avocado are some of the plants they are working on. Moreover, with the motive of preserving and promoting Nepali indigenous plants, this startup is working on three green plants with a local vendor. “There is a need to preserve indigenous plants in Nepal in order to save them from going extinct. If such plants are produced here, there is no need to import the vegetations from other countries,” he stresses.
The main target of Kalapas Biotech is to produce high quality plants that aren’t easily harmed by bacteria. “As the base of other cloned plants is the same, we can be confident that we can get the same product as the mother plant. For instance, if there’s a high quality avocado plant and if we can extract a tissue from it we can produce the best avocado plants,” he says.
Kalapas aims to supply the tissue cultured plants to botanical nurseries across the country. Currently, the company supplies plants to six nurseries. “We aim to produce one million plants per year. Besides, we are also planning to export potato seedlings produced from tissue culture process to South Asian countries as well,” he said.
Currently, there are 12 people working in the company. According to Chewan, most of the people working in Kalapas are the ones who would normally go abroad for employment. “We have trained people who had no idea about biotechnology. As Kalapas is based in Dhulikhel, we want to create employment for locals here,” he says. They are also trying to promote women empowerment. Except for one member of staff, the company’s employees are women most of whom are housewives.
Expanding Customer Base
In just two years, the Kalapas Biotech has been able to grow its customer base to a satisfactory level. “People who need plants are finding us themselves and we don’t have to search for customers and to engage in marketing activities,” shares Chewan, adding, “Customers from Dhankuta are visiting us with mother plants saying that they want us to reproduce the plants.”
Kalapas Biotech ensures its customers that the plants supplied by the company are better than those imported from other countries. “A good harvest cannot be guaranteed from the plants imported from India. But our plants are priced at the minimum compared to the imported ones. We can also guarantee a good crop from the plants,” claims Chewan.
Their price range depends on the type of plants, usually costing from Rs 20 to Rs 100 per plant. Similarly, the price of new plants that need to be researched is decided once their protocols are developed.
Opportunities and Challenges
“There is a huge demand for our plants, but we are not sure if we can produce at that level or not,” says Chewan. However, Kalpas directors are aware that demand does not always remain consistent. So they have been collaborating with other organisations working in a similar field and have been trying to create a database whereby they can plan for future production.
Like other startups, managing financial resources has been a major challenge for Kalapas. Chewan observes that Nepali banks and financial institutions (BFIs) are yet to understand the investment potentials in biotech. “When we ask BFIs to invest in biotech, they back off,” he says. Similarly, getting the human resources was another challenge for the company in the beginning.This was overcome by inviting university professors as advisors and fresh graduates as interns.
Chewan sees the sluggish implementation of the policies introduced by the government as a bottleneck. “In addition, domestic biotech startups cannot bring in investments from abroad as the government has prohibited foreign investment in the agriculture sector,” he says.
Kalapas Biotech has been working on more varieties of plants for tissue culture. Besides, the company is also working on soil and manure and has been trying to promote organic bio fertilisers. “We want to provide alternatives to the farmers who rely on agriculture. In the meantime, we also look to work with local government and expand the areas of our business,” says Chewan.