Kiran Mazumdar-shaw Curated
Chairperson and Managing Director of Biocon Ltd...
CURATED BY :
How important is it for researchers to use scientific collaborations to speed up their research work?
If you could make 6 changes that would help women at work. what would they be?
What are your thoughts on representing science through arts? How does it find expression in your capacity as a collector and patron of arts?
People believe that art and science are two distinct realms. It is far from the truth. Because if you look at science, from a microscope or from a different lens, you can see the beauty in science. It is very artistic. And in recent times, a lot of scientists have produced art on cell biology. There is artistic beauty to the way biology functions, nature functions and science functions. I am trying to bring that kind of understanding in the design space.
What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?
My big idea is to marry affordability and access to ensure that we leverage innovation to develop affordable, cutting-edge therapies for chronic diseases. I am on a mission to make a global impact by ensuring affordable access to healthcare. “What use is our scientific endeavor and innovation when they are inaccessible to the people who need them the most?” One third of the world’s population lacks access to medicines because they are too expensive. We need to ask ourselves: What use is our scientific endeavor and innovation when they are inaccessible to the people who need them the most? It is only when the benefits of research reach the person on the lowest rung of the economic ladder that it can be considered to have delivered true value. My life’s work has been focused on building a new model of innovation that adds the condition of affordability to ensure accessibility. I have successfully challenged the Western world’s existing model of pharmaceutical innovation, which leads to the creation of monopolistic markets for novel, life-saving drugs that deliver high margins at low volumes. At Biocon, we focus on leveraging the power of “affordable innovation” to develop blockbuster drugs that are not about a billion dollars, but about expanding access to a billion patients. It’s a business model that goes to the core of ensuring a global right to healthcare through affordable biopharmaceuticals.
What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?
I believe in never giving up, no matter what the odds. My mantra is, “Failure is temporary. Giving up is permanent.” It is this trait that led me to surmount the “credibility” challenges I faced in my initial days as an entrepreneur due to my age, gender, and innovative business model. Later, it helped me steer Biocon through the uncharted waters of innovation-led biotechnology research at a time when the prevailing business ethos of the Indian pharma industry centered around manufacturing and supplying chemically synthesized generic drugs.
If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?
I strongly believe that we can increase the number of women in leadership roles if we can plug their exit post-motherhood. In order to do this, we need to have a more enabling ecosystem that comprises the workplace, the home, and society at large. Good childcare infrastructure at the workplace and a strong family support system can help in a big way. As corporates, we can contribute by providing flexible human-resources policies that allow women to transition back to their jobs post-maternity in a smooth manner. We are seeing heightened awareness and discussions in India around facilitating women at work and addressing the issue of gender diversity. Recently we have seen the passage of the maternity bill in India, which has extended the maternity-leave period for women to 26 weeks. More recently, the Indian parliament is debating a proposal of awarding two days of paid menstrual leave every month to women at work in public and private sectors. “Knowledge doesn’t discriminate on the basis of gender.”
At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?
I was totally unprepared for the gender bias that a young woman had to face for daring to start a business in the male-dominated society of India of the 1970s. But, actually, my experience did not make me change my belief that knowledge doesn’t discriminate on the basis of gender, and a woman can achieve anything if she puts her mind to it.
When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?
It was the period when I was looking for a job as a master brewer in India in the late 1970s. It was the most depressing period of my life. Despite my class-topping academic qualifications, and after successfully completing one of the best international courses on brewing available then, I was denied a job because I was a woman! I was told there was no place for me in the male-dominated brewing industry in India. It was galling! However, I refused to give up and transformed myself into a biotechnology entrepreneur, who went from setting up India’s largest enzymes company to creating Asia’s premiere biopharmaceutical company! From being a job seeker, I became a job creator.
A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?
I have always believed that successful businesses thrive on great human relationships, which are formed through collaborations and extend out into personal and professional networks. Very often, strong personal networks lead to robust professional relationships. At the workplace, I believe in empowering my colleagues to assume challenging responsibilities that involve decision-making. It is a great way to build trust, motivate people, and foster strong professional relationships.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Money is not the currency with which you buy favors, but a currency with which you make a difference to society.” The best advice I have ever received was from my father. After finishing school I wanted to become a doctor, but I unfortunately did not have the grades to make it to medical college. Like many of my friends, I expected my father to secure a seat for me by paying capitation fee. However, he refused and told me: “I have provided you with the best of school education, and if your efforts have not helped you to gain admission into medical college, it means you haven’t worked as hard as someone else who has made the grade. Money is not the currency with which you buy favors, but a currency with which you make a difference to society.” That day he taught me an important lesson in meritocracy and about not having a sense of entitlement.
If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…
I think men should stop looking at women as the “weaker” sex and should not make assumptions regarding their capabilities. They should not assume that women don’t “get”certain things, and curb their need to be old-fashioned skeptics!
The mountain I’m willing to die on…
is the one that is considered unconquerable.
At the start of your career. what were some things that you wish you had known?
I wish people would stop telling me…
and start acting on what they preach.
Everyone should own…
up to their mistakes.
What were some of the things that were told to you that you wish you hadn't believed?
Name personal and professional qualities that have enabled you to excel in your profession?
If you could go back in time and pick iconic women whom you would have liked to meet. who would they be?
words of wisdom that your mother/grandmother/aunts may have shared with you that you hold close to your heart?
You've accomplished so much on your own. would you say that you feel a sense of completeness now or is there hunger for more?
We believe that you are working on a plasma transfusion procedure for the treatment of COVID-19. What stage is it in and does it require extensive trials?
I am not working on it, but I’m helping facilitate it. It was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration a few days ago. It is simply a procedure to take plasma from those recovered, as their blood plasma contains antibodies. The enrichment of such plasma antibodies is almost like giving a vaccine dose and serious patients have a good chance of recovering. Many countries, like Canada, Italy and China, have done it. We also should get ready for plasma therapy. I have been asking state governments to start collecting blood from live convalescent blood donors. Until Friday, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana and Delhi were working towards it. Kerala has also initiated this therapy. Columbia University’s Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee spoke about plasma transfusion treatment. He had also mentioned a small molecular drug. Dr Mukherjee is in contact with several US companies developing antibody-based therapies. We are seeing if we can work with them and develop such treatments.
Working on vaccines or plasma transfusion... What do you think we should to focus on as priority?
The ultimate is the vaccine. Till you get it, you are not completely safe. Plasma enrichment, antibody-based therapeutics and antivirals like Remdesivir are all being tried.
What is the importance of inter-disciplinary approach in the field of entrepreneurship and how well can entrepreneurs use it to their advantage while planning to start their businesses?
There is an SC order on free testing, but the private sector has explained that it is not feasible.
The Supreme Court passed the order in response to a petition. Most of the testing labs are small and each government kit costs about Rs 4,500. These labs will find it difficult to bear the burden. A better solution may be for the government to underwrite these tests. Another option could be to look for insurance companies to bear the burden. Certainly, they cannot be given freely by labs.
What is your opinion on Hydroxychroquinine, considering that many are opposed to it?
There is a lot of data saying it is working. Who am I to say anything? Let us go by the evidence.
How is Biocon focussing on developing the vaccine or an anti-COVID-19 drug?
Biocon and Syngene are working on serological testing kits, antibody-based therapies and vaccines, and repurposing our drugs. We are working on small and large molecules, like Alzumab.
How long should the lockdown be extended?
Lockdown is necessary. Because of it, in 21 days, we are in a better state of preparedness. In two weeks, we will be in an even better state of preparedness. We need to do heat mapping based on the risk levels. Areas marked red should have a complete lockdown. A second zone marked yellow/amber indicates a medium risk level, which may allow partial lifting of the lockdown and third, low-risk green zones should have bare minimum restrictions.
Is the Bhilwara model for containment of COVID-19 replicable in other places?
We should emulate the Bhilwara model in Rajasthan, where a single district successfully dealt with the virus. It is practicable and the guidelines are available.
You are connected with healthcare in Karnataka and Rajasthan. What is the road ahead for healthcare?
We know this pandemic spreads through faeces, yet we see defecation, spitting and urinating in the open. Take Thailand for example. It is highly populated but has reported very few deaths. This in spite of huge tourism and foreigners travelling to that country. It has a good public health system and has built social immunity.
What motivated you to start your philanthropic journey and where did you go for advice?
I belong to the breed of first-generation entrepreneurs who have basically created our enterprises with very frugal resources. Being in a field like healthcare, for me as someone who is basically on a mission to make a global impact in terms of affordable access to healthcare, I am very, very concerned about the fact that there are a large number of people in this world who need to have some access to basic rights, whether it is in education or healthcare. This is a huge global challenge which I think every one of us who has been fortunate enough to create the kind of wealth we have created, needs to do something about. Inherently I have a social conscience which my late father inculcated in me. He was not exactly a very wealthy man but he was very concerned about the underprivileged, about the people who didn’t have equal opportunities.
Can you talk about your portfolio of philanthropic works? You mentioned you work in cancer, and initiated work in diabetes.
My philanthropy is largely focused on healthcare and I really want to make a difference to people’s lives. The poor are absolutely neglected and they are abused in many ways, because the system just totally ignores their needs, so I have also sort of allocated some part of my philanthropy funds to primary healthcare. In primary healthcare again, I want to use technology in a big way, because I feel that we have got to leapfrog if we have to make any difference to society. I have helped to create what are called ilaaj (diagnosis) clinics and we use technology to diagnose early so that you can treat early and the outcomes become better. These are experimental times but for me philanthropy is about catalyzing a process. It is not about doing the government’s job, which very often the government believes is what philanthropy is. I don’t ascribe to that at all. I believe that in philanthropy, there are certain things where you can make a big difference like you know building hospitals where you can actually deliver affordable healthcare. I think the government needs to partner with philanthropists and with corporate social responsibility to experiment with new ideas, and that is a form of philanthropy that can really transform.
For you, what has translated from your for-profit experience into your philanthropy?
Philanthropy has to be sustainable, and that’s why I will make a big distinction between charity and philanthropy. Charity has generally a sort of temporary effect and is about giving fish to a hungry man rather than teaching a person how to fish. Philanthropy changes somebody else’s life in a meaningful way.
Do you think there are chances of depletion of ideas?
How is new philanthropy different from traditional philanthropy?
I think old wealth understands philanthropy and they do have a lot of philanthropic programmes to show for it, like in the case of the Birlas or Tatas. They do have a lot to show in terms of philanthropic outcomes; they have created educational institutes, hospitals and other kind of institutions. New wealth takes time to understand what philanthropy is about, because when you create new wealth, your first immediate reaction is “I got to make sure that I keep that wealth for a rainy day".
What can be done to stimulate philanthropy in India?
Philanthropy is about setting an example and I think many of us first-generation entrepreneurs who have built very successful businesses have come together under the India Philanthropy Initiative (IPI) that Mr (Azim) Premji started. Ratan Tata was also one of the co-conspirators. I would say that many of us who belong to IPI, like Nandan and Rohini Nilekani, are like-minded people when it comes to philanthropy. We all believe that every generation has to create new wealth and the wealth that you have created, a large part of it must go back into making the society better, to make a difference to the ones who have been wronged in the society. Every one of us who has created this kind of wealth in India in recent times has demonstrated a social conscience, whether it is Infosys or Wipro, or Biocon.
What advice do you give to the new philanthropists who are early in their journey?
I always tell people to ask themselves: where do you think you can make a difference and why do you want to make that difference.
New philanthropists tend to feel overwhelmed by the needs of society. How do you decide to focus on certain things and say no to other things?
It’s not just about being a new philanthropist. Even seasoned philanthropists get absolutely bombarded by requests. Everyone comes with great ideas and how wonderful their initiative is and why you should be helping them. As a philanthropist, you have to be very clear on what you are trying to do. If something that is being done actually aligns with what you are doing, then it is very clear that you can actually help this person. But more often most requests don’t quite align with what you are trying to do, so it is very easy to say no. Personally I back ideas where I know that the person is very passionately involved with that initiative because again it is about sustainability. You’ve got to have ownership of what you are doing.
What can strengthen Indian philanthropy?
I believe that investing in incubators and accelerators through an angel investment is also extremely important, provided that you are not looking for a return on that investment and are prepared to reinvest whatever returns you make on such investments. To me as a first-generation entrepreneur I know how tough it is to build a business and to scale it up, so I think philanthropic funds should also help others to build social businesses.
What are the things that you do to be able to delegate in your philanthropy?
You do need to make sure that you build a philanthropic organization or an administrative cell that really looks at your philanthropy very objectively. In most of my kind of philanthropic initiatives, I have really invested in such a way that I leave it to the investees to really take my philanthropy forward. For instance, at the hospital project, I just leave it to the administration of the hospital to make sure that they leverage what I have given them into a very big opportunity.
What do you think about the health care sector in India? Do you think we invest enough? An ambitious National Health Protection Scheme (NHPS) was announced in this budget. What do you think about the scheme and the sector overall?
The NHPS announced in this budget is welcome and long overdue because it shows that there is a thinking and a focus on some form of Universal Health Care (UHC) for at least the poor strata of our population. Because, without positive health indicators, India’s inclusive growth potential is stifled and it is already estimated that you can increase the GDP growth by 1.5% with better health indicators, while India has very poor health indicators when it comes to child and maternal mortality, nutrition and underweight, etc. So, there is a huge problem and NHPS is extremely important that it has got the deserved focus. Now, coming to whether we are investing enough...there has been lot of discussion and debate about what is the model that we are going to follow...is it going to be an insurance model, a trust fund model that means reimbursement—what is it? Insurance or a reimbursement model—that itself has to be figured out. Then the bigger question we need to ask is it is just a cash-less hospitalization scheme or is this is an end-to-end healthcare scheme. That’s a fundamental question we have to ask...I personally believe that it has to be an end-to-end UHC scheme, which means we must actually integrate primary healthcare into this scheme. If you want to make it into a sustainable, viable model, then you will have to down-stage the disease to primary healthcare, which means preventive healthcare becomes a very important part of delivering on this particular goal.
Do you mean to say that we need to integrate primary and tertiary care to make it implementable?
Correct; if you don’t combine it and integrate it with primary care, it won’t work because you will only find people going to the hospitals. Now, we need to make sure that you down-stage the disease so that the people actually going to the hospitals, either secondary or tertiary, will really be the ones that need to go.
Are you concerned about the implementation of the scheme?
I am saying if you want to implement the scheme and are looking at secondary and tertiary care hospitalization, it’s never going to be viable. It’s not going to sustain because of the amount you need. Today, numbers from Rs10,000-20,000 crore are being talked about. What is the right number, you will never be able to address unless you understand what you are trying to do. I personally believe that healthcare has to be thought through in that way... My view is, before you roll out a whole plan, you should do it on about a million families, like a pilot. Then, the Rs2,000 crore will be well spent because you need to map it out and see how it works... but somebody needs to run this pilot very holistically and if you get companies doing things under CSR, and give them some kind of partnering models to come together and roll this plan out, then you can do it fast. But if the government wants to start from scratch and build it up ground up, it’s going to take a lot of time because I feel that it’s not been thought through fully.
How can a university help its students identify their own ideas and establish a business based on that?
You termed 2017 as a landmark year for Indian science in one of your blogs, given the fact that there are regulatory issues with severe criticism coming from US regulators. What is your take now?
Regulatory compliance is a big challenge for everyone, not just in India but across the world, because US and European regulators are becoming far more stringent than they ever were. In the past, compliance norms were not so stringent as they are now so as they become more stringent, we have to catch up and make sure we are as compliant today as before. Now, we are trying to play in bio-similars. From that point of view, compliance has become so important for every large Indian pharma firm that we are actually investing a lot in beefing up our compliance systems making sure everyone has appointed a set of consultants to help us improve.
A few years back, due to some regulatory issues pertaining to clinical trials, you had to go to the US for your oral insulin. Is it still the same in India?
It has improved to a certain extent. The Indian regulator has improved its standards of inspection, and is accompanying the US FDA and European inspectors to learn how to inspect better; all that has improved I must say, but when it comes to regulating the smaller guy, it’s not yet done. On one hand, NPPA doesn’t differentiate between large and small firms and they fix up prices based on the lowest common denominator—which is the small unregulated guy. Is it fair that as a patient, if I am taking a medicine, I don’t get to know the quality? Won’t I be willing to spend a little more if I know it comes from a larger reliable firm than just from some unknown small firm just because its cheap? And the larger firm says I can’t make it at those prices because that person doesn’t have those standards and systems we have. Where is this discussion and disparity that has to be sorted out? And the government is not sorting it out equitably.
Coming to NPPA, what do you think about price control in India?
There has to be a price regulation, I agree. I don’t think we should just allow hospitals to charge whatever they want but I think every drug can be priced and there has to be ceiling price. But how to arrive at the ceiling price is the question. The logic that they are using is flawed. They are looking at a whole bunch of prices irrespective of quality, who is making it, what is the infrastructure, investment, R&D investment—they are looking at like-for-like comparison. If I were to compare Cipla, Lupin, Sun and Biocon, I would say it’s a fair comparison but if I start comparing with some small company in the back of beyond which is a Rs50 crore or a Rs10 crore company—they are making medicines with no R&D, have no quality systems, QAQC (quality assurance, quality control) and are not inspected by any regulator. Today, we are all inspected by US and European regulators. So, how do you differentiate between the firms that have got EU kind of standards with firms that have very poor standards, and then say this firm is making it at 10 paisa, why are you charging Re 1? And then, you say everybody should charge 10 paise. That’s not acceptable... I feel that people who are taking these calls are not even scientific. It is becoming a commercial financial decision, which is absolutely wrong when it comes to drugs and science.
At Biocon, you have an exclusive league of biosimilars. What next?
Biocon is on a journey of making impact on global healthcare. I have to make sure that I have one in five persons who needs insulin therapy to use a Biocon product—that is my dream... in the next ten years, I want that to happen...whoever needs insulin and insulin analogs. Let’s hope that one in five of those people around the world will use a Biocon product. That is a big dream…I want to make sure that our bio-similars capture a huge market share and help cancer patients around the world, which we are already doing in the developing world because we didn’t have access to these drugs. Biocon enjoys a large reputation of giving them high-quality cancer drug...my biggest dream is I want Biocon to be a company of which at least one drug makes it big, whether oral insulin or fusion mAbs (monoclonal antibodies)...I want it to be a big drug and Biocon should be known for that—this is my ‘what next’!
Through the many decades of building Biocon, what has held you in good stead?
I would attribute our success to a laser sharp focus on being a differentiated biopharmaceutical company and enduring the long gestational process of getting to the end points. It has also involved a high regulatory and investment risk profile which has enabled us to build a growing risk-management capability. We have seen several competitors dropping out given the gruelling obstacles of regulatory and investment risks. We have also displayed resilience in addressing setbacks. And we have had the courage of our conviction to withstand criticism and scepticism. Additionally, we have invested significantly in research infrastructure and building high-end scientific talent. Quality and compliance have also been a strong focus, driving a culture of continual improvement. We have also pursued a model of striking strategic partnerships to manage risks and bridge near-term experience gaps.
Would you say that the next stage is to see the company irrevocably commit to novel drug discovery?
Well, Biocon’s biologics journey started with novels. We were the first company in India to develop a new biologic and take it from lab to market. BIOMab EGFR/Nimotuzumab was our first novel monoclonal antibody for cancer, which was launched in India in 2006. This was followed by a second novel antibody, ALZUMAb™, the world’s first novel anti-CD6 monoclonal antibody, Itolizumab, in India, for psoriasis in 2013. This antibody has been licensed to a US biotech company, Equillium, which recently listed itself on Nasdaq to pursue several orphan indications in immune mediated diseases. It is this approach that has enabled us to acquire deep insights into immunology and antibody technology. We had forayed into novel biologics ahead of our entry into the biosimilars segment. We have leveraged this knowledge to develop a wide portfolio of biosimilar drugs to address a large and evolving worldwide demand. Today, we have created a rich pipeline of novel and biosimilar assets aimed at addressing large unmet medical needs globally. Our basket of novel assets under development represents an interesting combination of early and advanced stage programmes. These include an oral insulin molecule; monoclonal antibodies against targets like CD6, CD20 and EGFR; a pipeline of bispecific fusion antibodies that exploit the recent understanding of the role of checkpoint inhibitors; and a partnered siRNA-based molecule. We have generated encouraging and exciting data, garnering a great deal of licensing and partnering interest.
Last year saw a strong upside for Biocon, which also made you the top gainer in percentage terms on Forbes India’s list of Indian billionaires…
I am extremely proud of the business we have built with a singular focus on delivering biologics that address affordability and access. The string of regulatory approvals we have received from the USFDA [Food and Drug Administration] and EMA [European Medicines Agency] has endorsed our business leadership in biosimilars. We were the first company globally to get our biosimilars for Trastuzumab and Pegfilgrastim, co-developed with Mylan, approved by the USFDA. We were also among the first few to receive insulin glargine approval from the European Commission and Australia. These achievements have infused investor and market confidence which have led to a huge surge in our market cap and thereby my personal wealth.
Which achievement has given you the most satisfaction and the confidence that you’ll can make much bigger plays in the global pharma/bio-pharma markets?
The USFDA approval of biosimilar Trastuzumab in 2017 was a big credibility endorsement for Biocon and personally a big confidence boost. This was significant given that several credible competitors were unable to cross the finish line. It was followed by a second approval of biosimilar Pegfilgrastim, where we were laggards in development, but eventually beat the front runners. This endorsed our ability to develop high quality biologics and get it right the first time. These two events have catapulted us into the leadership league of biosimilar companies. Today Biocon is well-poised to enter the developed markets of US and Europe at a time of increasing acceptance of biosimilars.
How do you view the fact that you’re a multibillionaire?
Having grown up in a middle-class family in India, I was brought up by my parents to believe that wealth creation is about making a difference to society. As a first-generation entrepreneur, I built Biocon with these guiding principles. My success has given me the ability to pursue my commitment to social inclusiveness that goes beyond running a business aimed at developing drugs with a potential to treat a billion patients. As part of my philanthropic efforts, I also support the pursuit of science to target cancer. The Mazumdar Shaw Medical Centre, my philanthropic initiative in partnership with Dr Devi Shetty, aims to create a sustainable affordable cancer care model that leverages advanced technologies, state-of-the-art diagnostics and best-in-class talent to address the challenges associated with this disease. Our unique model enables the poor to access treatment at costs subsidised by those who can afford it. The Mazumdar Shaw Centre for Translational Research, which is an integral part of the hospital, has developed a number of advanced-yet-affordable genomics-based cancer diagnostics, including liquid biopsies. This enables early diagnosis and better treatment outcomes based on personalised medicine. Through Biocon Foundation’s corporate social responsibility initiatives we are ensuring that marginalised communities can enjoy the ‘right to health, education and sanitation’.
Does Bangalore still have that enabling ecosystem as it used to be when you started Biocon and is it actually progressing on the same line?
Most successful people tend to see the ‘greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts’ aspect of their work with more clarity than others. How does one develop that ability… with perseverance or is it inherent?
I believe it’s a combination of both. I started out with the ambition to be a doctor, but life took me on another path. I was an accidental entrepreneur who started her journey in an unknown sector of biotechnology without any family linkages to the business world. Today, I am extremely proud of what we are doing. I have been able to touch many more lives through the drugs developed by Biocon. As a first-generation entrepreneur, I have challenged the Western pharmaceutical model of creating monopolistic markets that deliver high margins at low volumes. This is because I have been driven by the belief that the pharmaceutical industry has a humanitarian responsibility to provide affordable access to essential drugs for patients who are in need and to do so with the power of innovation. My vision for our research programmes for treating diabetes and cancer is to bring transformative change in treatment paradigms. Affordable blockbuster drugs with a ‘Made in India’ label that can change the lives of billions of patients around the world will stand testimony to our foresight.
Can India become a powerhouse of novel drug discovery? Will its pharma/bio-pharma industry move towards high-end R&D-based business opportunities?
We have the potential to deliver innovation at scale but the biggest challenge is to fund startups to scale up. For example, Bengaluru has almost 700 life science startups with a few outstanding incubators and innovation hubs, both at academic institutions as well as independent standalone ones. One of the most successful of these is C-CAMP. The lack of venture funding and access to capital markets is preventing these companies from scaling. In fact, there is a growing trend to establish a presence in the US to be able to raise funds from the highly networked and mature US market. Consequently, India loses out on its innovation quotient even though early stage research for many of these takes place in India. While the government is doing its bit by giving the seed capital for startups, for the long-term risk capital, we are yet to see the emergence of an ecosystem in India where the VCs [venture capitalists] start investing in innovation-driven enterprises. I believe this will happen gradually when a few success stories start emerging. VCs in India today prefer information technology-led startups, which are of much lower risk and more predictable rather than a gestational business like life tech. Another challenge is the poor clinical and translational research culture in India. Clinicians prefer practice to research and publication. Unless this changes, India will not be able to compete effectively in life sciences. I think the sooner India understands the power of innovation, the greater the chances for a ‘Made in India’ novel molecular entity to make an impact globally.
What gives you that confidence? And what are the implications if most remain in the generics business?
The Indian pharmaceuticals sector built global scale and leadership by reverse engineering expensive, chemically synthesised, small molecule drugs to produce cost-effective generic alternatives. In doing so, it earned the label of being the ‘Pharmacy of the World’. After dominating the traditional generic drugs industry for decades, many Indian companies are now in the race to create generic versions of biologic drugs, or biosimilars, which are far more complex to make but offer a large global opportunity. As patents expire on novel biologics, the biosimilars market is expected to grow rapidly, exceeding $28 billion by 2020 from the present $5 billion. The Indian biosimilars industry is evolving fast and promises to transform health care in the years to come.
You have expressed your support for GM crops based on scientific studies, but there are its opponents such as Vandana Shiva and Nicholas Taleb who believe GM crops are are harmful for the soil, and for people. What is your stand on that now?
There is overwhelming scientific evidence to prove that GM crops are safe. By choosing to ignore hard scientific data that debunk the perceived threat from GMOs to human health,anti-GM lobbyists are doing a great public disservice by forwarding half-baked and irrational theories of “Frankenfood”. The truth is that farmers have for hundreds of years “genetically modified” crops through breeding to get desirable traits in their produce. All that scientists are doing today is using biotechnology to do the same at an accelerated pace with precision. Regulatory agencies like the US FDA and WHO have all declared GM crops as safe as conventional crops. Not only that, a recent meta-analysis has found that GM crops have large, widespread benefits for farmers and economies embracing biotechnology. To ensure global food security in the years to come and bring succour to millions who go hungry all over the world, we need to lend our support to GM crops.
What policy, practice or mindset changes can help take India from being a collaborative manufacturer to a strong pioneer in innovation on the international stage?
Incentivizing innovation and IP creation is important for India’s future growth prospects. For innovation to flourish, India needs to draw inspiration from its age-old expertise in science and technology and build a national narrative around it. Our education system should focus on curiosity-driven learning, which nurtures the spirit of enquiry and catalyses the process of innovation. The government, on its part, needs to step up investment in research and translational innovation. It must identify key areas in which to build world-class scientific and technological excellence, e.g., genomics, nano-science, analytics, synthetic biology, information technology, space technology etc. Investors in India must change their mindsets and come forward to fund truly innovative, first-of-its-kind, and thus untested business models. I believe such an innovation ecosystem that enables entrepreneurs to propel ideas into sustainable businesses will add value to our economy in the long run.
Recently, reports said that promoters of major companies were meeting the mandatory requirement for at least one woman board member by appointing family members such as daughters and wives, which defeats the purpose. It also shows the lack of women leaders in India except a few who are being wooed by multiple companies to join their boards. How can the gender gap be bridged in senior management positions and in company boardrooms in India?
It is unfortunate that the recent rush to appoint women directors on the board was more an act of tokenism on the part of India Inc. than any real attempt at gender inclusivity. Corporate India needs to realize that more female oversight on running of companies can result in better overall performance — a fact that has been proved empirically. India has a huge pool of talented women professionals from skilled economists to social scientists and chartered accountants to social entrepreneurs who are waiting to be identified. Indian companies need to cast their net wide to identify this deep talent pool who can bring a fresh perspective to corporate decision-making in India and bring enormous value to the boardroom.
What is preventing more women from scaling the heights of success that people such as you have achieved?
A large number of people in India still believe that, for women, marriage must take precedence over their career. It is also common to see highly qualified women give up their careers and settle for a traditional homemaker’s role in order to conform to family expectations. I believe that starting a family should not be a deterrent to a woman’s career goals. There is no reason for a woman not to get back to her work environment after taking maternity leave. Many a time, women are forced to give up senior management responsibilities if their spouses are transferred or if marriage influences this. Women are also less willing to undertake extensive business related travel and both these put them at a disadvantage. Having said that, I think any women can achieve what I have achieved if they have the self-belief to think big and the determination to make it big.
How would you describe the entrepreneurship climate in India? What needs to change to make it more conducive to the growth of new enterprises?
India is a fertile ground for entrepreneurship, given its large pool of world-class talent and resources. However, Indians fail to take ‘ideas’ to ‘market’ because unlike in the West capital is virtually inaccessible here. There isn’t enough public funding available for academia to pursue discovery and invention. Similarly, critical risk and seed capital needed by entrepreneurs to translate concepts into “proof of concept” is hard to come by. Moving ahead in this cycle, Industry also finds it difficult to obtain private funding from financial institutions, venture funds and capital markets to innovate and commercialize. India, therefore, needs to create a virtuous cycle if it is to unleash the huge potential of the nation’s entrepreneurial energy. This financial eco-system will work only if all three components – Academia, Entrepreneurs and Industry – work symbiotically and in tandem. To set the wheels spinning and make the model self-perpetuating monetization needs to happen at every stage of this cycle. Academia therefore needs to create intellectual property (IP) through its discoveries and inventions that can be licensed to either entrepreneurs or directly to industry with royalty payments upon commercialization.Entrepreneurs need to create value-added IP that can be licensed to industry with royalties upon commercialization. Industry needs to monetize through successful commercialization that enables the payment of royalties.
Do you think it would be easier to start a Biocon now than when you did? Do you think entrepreneurs today face the same challenges as you did, or are they facing a different set of challenges?
I believe there are much greater opportunities today for people to realize their entrepreneurial ambitions. Entrepreneurs today can start their own business with greater ease and less red tape. Thanks to the Internet revolution, they can take their ideas to financiers and markets in a way that was not previously possible. While the situation has definitely changed for the better, some of the obstacles that I faced as an entrepreneur way back in the seventies still remain. Entrepreneurs need to first build credibility for themselves and their businesses. They must be able to quickly adapt their businesses to be relevant and be able to take calculated risks when the right opportunity presents itself. The beginning of any entrepreneurial endeavour is always daunting as it is fraught with unknown and unexpected challenges. Facing challenges with ingenuity and determination are key to becoming a successful entrepreneur.
What measures can the govt. take to ease the policy and procedures for doing business keeping the need of women entrepreneurs in mind?
How do you attract top talent, and keep them energized and motivated?
I believe in empowering, trusting, enabling and mentoring leaders at multiple levels in my team. By providing ample opportunities to others to develop their leadership potential, one can instil a sense of ownership among team members to take forward the leader's vision and mission. I also believe in leading from the front. At the same time, I am tremendously result-oriented and always open to new ideas.
High-quality, reliable healthcare is absent for the majority of Indians, who are at the mercy of inefficient government hospitals. What can be done to ensure everyone has access to the healthcare they deserve?
India needs to implement a robust universal healthcare program aimed at providing affordable access for its citizens. Public health spending in India needs to be urgently raised to at least 2.5% of GDP from a mere 1% currently. The country also needs to develop a system that is based on Electronic Medical Records and e-Health Centres by leveraging information and communication technologies (ICTs). Also, close collaboration between private entities and public agencies will help augment existing government resources in order to increase healthcare delivery access and thus improve health outcomes. I believe a national healthcare model supported by ICTs and with private-public collaboration at its core can revolutionize healthcare delivery and transform the public healthcare scenario in India.
Dr. Mazumdar-Shaw, please share what inspired you to become an entrepreneur at quite an early stage in your scientific career?
I call myself an accidental entrepreneur. I was all set to take up a brewing job in Scotland when a chance encounter with an Irish entrepreneur led me to set up a biotech business in India instead. I owe my drive and determination to my upbringing, which instilled in me a set of values that make me who I am. I was greatly inspired by my late father, who was a well-known name in the brewing industry. It was he who encouraged me to take the road less traversed and gave me the confidence to pursue my path of entrepreneurship. He prodded me to persevere and never give up in the face of adversity but rather learn from failure and seek new ways of doing things. In a sense, I learnt my lesson on differentiation from my father, which then became my business hall mark. My Irish collaborator, Les Auchincloss, also infused a tremendous sense of confidence in me, which enabled me to start Biocon in 1978 as a 25-year-old woman entrepreneur. It was he who gave me the break and the challenge that gave me a strong sense of purpose.
What were some of the initial challenges you faced as an entrepreneur and how did you overcome them?
When I started Biocon in 1978, the obstacles I needed to navigate were manifold – ranging from infrastructural hurdles to issues related to my credibility as a business woman. With no access to venture capital, money was scarce and high-cost, debt-based capital was all I had. Beyond the financial challenges was the business of biotechnology itself, which was unheard of in India. Enzyme technology, the biotechnology with which I started, was a new concept back then. There was skepticism about the commercial viability of eco-friendly but expensive enzymes to replace cheap chemical processes. My challenge was to get the market to accept biotechnology and change old practices. Moreover, enzyme manufacturing for industrial application involved sophisticated fermentation procedures, which demanded uninterrupted power supply and precision process control. However, the unreliable power supply situation and the limited resources that I had at that time were a serious challenge. Recruiting was another big challenge. My gender was a huge perceived handicap. I couldn't get anyone to join me not only because I was a woman but also because mine was a start-up company. I couldn't even get a secretary to work for me. However, I refused to let these challenges intimidate me. Eventually, a few brave folks did join me in my entrepreneurial journey.
What personal and professional qualities in your opinion have enabled you to ascend the heights of your profession?
I have been single-minded in my determination to see my venture succeed. I have never been the one to give up easily. So, when I faced the initial hiccups that any start-up in India faced during the pre-liberalization period, I simply became more determined to make it work. What gave me the courage to pursue my ambition was my ability to attract scientific talent – people who were as excited as me, to create a new business model based on innovation and differentiation. Another key enabler was the fact that I had an Irish joint venture partner who was willing to support me through my starting phase. I am also open to new ideas, experimentation and innovation. I knew then that we could make Biocon work if we followed a strategy of differentiation by leveraging our early-mover advantage. Instead of being hampered by what we did not have, we tried to use what we did have to our advantage and, through home-grown innovations, maximized results.
You are credited for pioneering biotechnology industry in India. What do you see as the key innovations of your company, Biocon?
My passion for innovation and my interest in the "business of science" has seen Biocon commercialize many innovative platforms and products. We started with a diverse portfolio of innovative enzymes and were credited with several proprietary platform technologies (e.g. a solid-state fermenter, the Plafractor, followed by a recombinant Pichia fermentation platform that has enabled us to commercialize the world's first Pichia-derived recombinant human insulin and insulin analogs). This has allowed us to be the lowest-cost producer of Insulins which are today competing in over 40 countries across the world. On the original innovation front, we have commercialized the first novel biologic in India, an Anti-EGFR monoclonal antibody, Nimotuzamab, for head and neck cancer, which has benefited over 6000 patients since its launch in 2006. Most recently, we have commercialized our second novel biologic, Itolizumab, for Psoriasis. This drug has an enormous potential to address a number of unmet needs of multiple autoimmune diseases like Multiple Sclerosis, Sjogren's Disease, Lupus etc. We also have a very exciting oral insulin development program which can transform Insulin therapy for diabetic patients. It has also been my unfulfilled aspiration to deliver a global blockbuster from Biocon, with a "Made in India" label.
How would you describe the entrepreneurship climate in India? What needs to be done to make it more conducive to the birth and growth of new enterprises in India?
India is a fertile ground for entrepreneurs, given its large pool of world-class talent and resources. India's ability to generate wealth and create social good will come if we let entrepreneurs flourish by encouraging and enabling innovation. Innovation and biotechnology can transform our numerous challenges – healthcare, education, development, agriculture, environment, and energy among others – into opportunities by developing innovative products that can benefit millions and drive economic growth. However, unlike in the West where capital markets are willing to invest in innovation for a long term, innovation in India is viewed as high-risk, low gain option and hence not investor-friendly. Investors in India are not prepared to invest in capital intensive long-term innovation based business models. India, therefore, needs a robust innovation "ecosystem." The government needs to establish strong industry-academia linkages to foster the spirit of enterprise and drive employment. However, a national innovation ecosystem is not enough, because if innovation is to flourish, ideas have to be funded to bring them to the market. I believe the solution here is to set up a secondary stock exchange that allows technology-driven, revenue-less, innovative companies to access capital markets, emulating the role of NASDAQ in the US for technology companies and AIM in London for technology companies in the UK. If this were to happen, it will spur innovation and attract much-needed investment.
How can the gender gap be bridged in senior management positions, in the corporate world?
It's true that even today board rooms and senior management positions are still the preserve of men except for a handful of companies. However, it is also true that the situation is changing, albeit slowly. I have seen a positive shift in gender equality in Corporate India. I do believe that women are being provided greater opportunities to participate in strategic areas of management. Indian business women like Indra Nooyi, Chanda Kochhar, Naina Lal Kidwai, Shikha Sharma, Swati Piramal, Anu Agha, Swati Piramal, Sulajja Firodia Motwani and Zia Mody have put India on the global firmament. These women have gained respect and made a big difference to the corporate world by managing the gender bias that exists in our world. These enormously talented women in our country can be role models and drive corporates to realize that gender diversity is of key importance in all Boards. I believe gender diversity can introduce a balance of views and opinions that allow for more informed decisions.
How do you keep your team energized and motivated as their leader?
I believe in empowering, trusting, enabling and mentoring leaders at multiple levels in my team. By providing ample opportunities to others to develop their leadership potential, one can instill a sense of ownership among team members to take forward the leader's vision and mission. I also believe in leading from the front. At the same time, I am tremendously result-oriented and always open to new ideas.
What are some of your favorite lessons that you have learnt from your own mentors?
Right from my childhood days my parents instilled in me the values of integrity and humility. My teachers at Bishop Cottons taught me how to think for myself and to excel in everything I do. A few of my professors at college taught me to focus on doing things differently and creatively in order to make a difference. These exceptional professors encouraged me to develop my own perspective and personality. "Science is about curiosity-driven learning" is what one of them said and it is etched in my mind even today. "Unless you are curious, you will never find science exciting" I was told. It is this approach that has allowed me to pursue a path of innovation. Innovation, as I understand it, is both about doing different things as well as doing things differently.
Femina marks 60 successful years of being the voice of women. Share your thoughts on this?
What policy, practice or mindset changes can help take India from being a collaborative manufacturer to a strong pioneer in innovation on the international stage?
As a traditionally risk-averse nation, India has rarely been at the forefront of innovation. Indian companies have mostly imitated others and became very good at it. Even in the biotech sector, most companies operate in the low-risk services and generic diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics space. It is time for biotechnology companies, especially in India and other developing countries, to re-orient their efforts to aggressively harness innovation through partnerships and collaborations to attain the dream of ensuring healthcare for all. As I have mentioned earlier, the government also needs to be an enabler by putting in place policies that will create a robust innovation "ecosystem" in India.
You champion the cause of healthcare improvement in India. What do you see as the major challenges & opportunities on this mission?
Today, the Indian government has abdicated its responsibility to provide basic healthcare to its people, but it's holding a gun at the pharma industry and asking it to shoulder the burden. The industry has worked very hard to create a cost-effective and competitive sector. It is actually producing the cheapest drugs in the world, but on top of that the government is dictating how much profit the pharma industry is allowed to make. A complete lack of political will and effective administration have kept accessible and affordable healthcare out of the reach of most Indians. The lack of a universal healthcare system in our country compels patients to bear almost 80% of the healthcare costs directly from their pocket. The opportunity therefore lies in leveraging India's value advantage and scientific excellence to come up with innovative technology for offering world-class products at affordable prices, thus making a huge difference to millions of patients in India. This is exactly what Biocon has been doing.
What initial steps would you recommend on the path towards providing high-quality, reliable healthcare to every Indian?
Tamil Nadu has taken an early lead in providing universal health coverage to its people by putting in place an effective drugs procurement and distribution mechanism as far back as 1994. Even more commendable is that Tamil Nadu created an IT-enabled supply chain management system that ensures delivery to real patients who need the medication - offering transparency to prevent misuse with stringent quality control, to weed out spurious drugs and their manufacturers. States like Kerala and Rajasthan have also made significant progress in healthcare by implementing this model. Free medicines cannot fix an overburdened public healthcare system in which many hospitals lack up-to-date equipment and doctors. Thus, the free essential drugs scheme is just one of the many steps the government will need to take to ensure universal healthcare. I feel the adoption at the national level of an e-healthcare system like the one followed in Tamil Nadu can help to provide free medicines to those who need them in a transparent and efficient manner.
What would be your commandments for success for budding entrepreneurs and innovators?
1. Evolve with the times: One of the significant lessons that I have learnt as an entrepreneur and innovator is that business visions evolve and change over time. As opportunities beckoned and better prospects for growth were found, I have changed my business model. I steered Biocon towards incremental innovation, thus morphing into improved versions of its older self over and over, while keeping our core values intact. I have also found it essential to always challenge myself through out-of-the-box solutions. At Biocon, we never forget that our sustainable success is rooted in the fact that we have made innovation the cornerstone of everything that we do. 2. Have a sense of purpose: Businesses must be driven by a sense of purpose and the spirit to take on challenges to ensure sustainable success. When we started Biocon, our resources were limited, the available infrastructure was primitive and we had to function in a fairly hostile business environment. But we succeeded against these odds because we believed in ourselves and our ability to succeed. Entrepreneurs must challenge themselves and the status quo and keep trying to differentiate - that will determine their success. 3. Work out the business model: One of the biggest challenges that any entrepreneur faces is working out an effective business model. I find most entrepreneurs don't know how to do that. So, even though they have a great product, they don't know how to market it. Business translation is something that entrepreneurs must address upfront. 4. Assess your capital needs: Another important thing that entrepreneurs need to do is to carefully work out their capital needs. They must work that out very carefully. Often people underestimate their resource and capital requirements. 5. Build an effective team: It is also important to get an effective team together. As an entrepreneur, you must lead the way and make sure that the team helps you in taking your vision forward.
Is there a favourite life wisdom that you would like to share with everybody?
In my entrepreneurial journey, my ability to face and learn from failure and move on has helped me a great deal in being successful. It is a trait that most entrepreneurs need to have in order to be successful. Failures provide the experience that no amount of success can. I am not suggesting one must seek failure, but when it comes, learn from it. I often say failure is temporary but giving up is permanent. We should never feel defeated in the face of failure, but should take it in our stride, learn from it and move on.
You’ve accomplished so much on your own. At this stage of your life, would you say there is a sense of completeness or is there still a sense of, you know, anxiety and hunger that a lot remains to be done? What is that sense that you have right now in life?
No entrepreneur feels that they have come to the end of the road. I think an entrepreneur's life is always a continuous journey. And, it’s really about milestones, rather than, you know, having a final destination. And I think as an entrepreneur we know that. We set off on a path not knowing where it will lead us.And therefore, we realise it’s a voyage of discovery. This voyage of discovery is a very exciting voyage, because it takes us to unknown destinations and makes new paths for us. So, that’s the journey of all us entrepreneurs. I think I’m no different. I started of my entrepreneurial journey quite by chance. In 1978, when I found that I could not pursue my dream of becoming a brew master and managing a brewery, I said okay then, what else can I do, and then I accidentally started this business. I said okay, its biotech, biotech is definitely linked to brewing, this is an exciting area. I do not know anything about starting a business, because I’ve never run a business. But it’s a voyage of discovery. Let me discover what this business journey is all about. That’s how I took the plunge. I started with making industrial enzymes, and a lot of those enzymes were actually designed for brewing. I was quite familiar with that piece. That’s what gave me my raison d'etre and this sense that I am still connected with brewing. So, my business also has a connection with the area, which I am very familiar with. I think most entrepreneurs will start a business they feel they have some familiarity with, some understanding, because I don’t think entrepreneurs start a business without having a clue of what they’re doing. I think it is extremely important that entrepreneurs have a deep-rooted interest in what they are doing, and should have a good understanding of what they are building. I was very excited to do something that was path breaking. It was a pioneering industry, and I was a pioneer because I had nobody to follow (laughs). I had none to show me the way. Or, tell me what to do with this business.
oday you are showing the way to so many. I remember in my college days we were told about you and how we should take your example and do something meaningful with our lives.
Looking back, I feel, yes, it was very courageous in a way because I had no idea what I was getting into. I feel entrepreneurs are also, you know, people with guts, people who take risks, people who do not want everything laid out for them. You're willing to struggle, you're willing to take up a challenge, but it’s with a sense of purpose; my sense of purpose that time was to prove myself as a manager. People told me, no we can’t give you a job as a brewer, you’re a woman. I was very determined to show that a woman can manage a business. Any business. That was my sense of challenge, and my sense of purpose was about developing these enzymes and building a business out of biotechnology. You have to have a spirit of challenge as an entrepreneur. Something should drive you. So whether it’s a Flipkart, a Biocon or an Infosys, something has to drive you, that has to give you a sense of purpose and a spirit of challenge. My spirit of challenge was that nobody had thought of building a business based on biotech. I am going to show this is possible. I am going to show that women can run businesses and can manage businesses. And my sense of purpose was, ‘Oh! this sounds fascinating. You know, it was about greening businesses. That was a very new concept. Saying how do we replace chemical technologies with enzyme technologies, and green the world. And that was my sense of purpose when I started. It’s like when Infosys started. They had the sense of purpose which was really about starting a software services company. And they had the Y2K challenge. They said no let’s show that we techies, we first generation entrepreneurs, can actually create a business out of this. Everyone has a sense of purpose, a spirit of challenge. And as you start building your business, obviously it’s a voyage of discovery, you basically learn how to deal with the problems, you learn how to solve problems, you learn how to deal with business issues, with regulatory issues, all these things are very alien to you when you get into building a business. Then you realize there is a formal process. It is not just doing something in an ad hoc way. There is a rationale to what you have to do. There is a strategy to what you do and so you slowly, sort of, learn on the job.
Did you always know that you wanted to make something large, something big?
Well, in the beginning you don’t think about those things, some people do, but I didn’t. My job was just to be successful in what I was doing. I had no business background. A lot of people come with a business background, so their understanding of rolling and managing and establishing a business is very different from someone like me, who was an absolute novice. I had no business background, no business experience and I had never worked for a company where I had learnt business processes or had an understanding of what business processes are about. So, I literally reinvented the wheel, I had to basically create my own learnings. I had to learn on the jobs so to speak.
Did you feel Lonely?
No, I didn’t. Because when you have the spirit of challenge you never feel lonely. You’re young, you know you have a lot of spirit in you, you want to get things done, and you’re willing to roll up your sleeves. I was willing to do anything, I was fearless. When I started my company, I didn’t have that kind of money, so I would travel the length and breadth of India in a train or on a bus. I couldn’t afford a plane ticket. I would go to all kinds of places using the most frugal ways to travel. I remember my parents would get worried: ‘you’re a single girl, you’re going on your own to all parts of India, to factories etc.’ Those were very difficult times in Punjab with the Akali Dal etc. And yet I used to go on my own. I used to jump into a bus. Most of my travel used to take me to the north those days as a lot of business opportunities were there. I didn’t care, I was on a purpose and hence fearless. Very often in those buses, I would be the only woman. There would be all these guys staring at me, but the bus driver would be very concerned about me and he would say, ‘Aap kahan ja rahi hai madam?’ and I would say, ‘Mujhe woh Jagatjit industry pahunchaneka hai,’ and that poor chap would stop the bus in front of the gate and say, you get down here. I did not have money and it was fun to slog it out.
What has been the influence of your parents in shaping you to be the fearless person you are?
My parents had a great influence on me. My father was a man ahead of his times. He would say to me just because you are my daughter doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have an aspiration to pursue a career. In fact, I want you to pursue a career. He was also a brew master and he wanted one of his children to be a brewer so he said, you do it. And I was like but I am a woman. And he said, ‘why shouldn’t you? It’s all in your mind. You can be a very good brew master.’ He had that kind of faith in me. My father also taught me a lot of good values. He used to say, “I’ll tell you something, there is good in every human being, and if you’re a good manager you bring out the goodness in people. A good manager is someone who brings out the good in everyone. And it’s for you as a manager to actually bring out that goodness.” I always thought that was such a telling a piece of advice. He also instilled high ethical values in me. He used to say, “There is no point in taking shortcuts, there is a good way of doing business and a not so good way of doing business. And I want my daughter to run her business in an honest way. And I want my children to have a very high sense of integrity in society.” My mother was always there for me. She believed in the same values as my father. She believes in self-reliance. After my father passed away, my mother started her own venture to keep herself mentally engaged positively (she had never worked previously and was a homemaker). She runs her own business even at the age of 82. She said one day to me, “You know I read that Alzheimer’s and Dementia happen to people who don’t keep their minds engaged and I want to keep myself really busy, and if I run a business, it will keep me fully engaged.” (Laughs fondly.)
When you donned the entrepreneurial cap. the business world was skewed more in favor of men. Do you think the same continues even today?
Being a woman in business, successful entrepreneur and role model, what has it been from a gender lens? What would you tell all the upcoming women professionals out there?
When I went to Australia to do my brewing course I was on my own. I was the only women in my class. That was a very transformative time for me because I suddenly realized that I could stand on my own. I could basically match one for one with men and with my male colleagues. I topped the class even though the others had a lot of experience -- they had all come from breweries. It taught me that being a woman does not have to be a handicap or a disadvantage. Being a woman has actually helped me gain confidence. I always tell women, it's all in your mind. Why should you feel that because you are a woman you can't do certain things? What can't you do? Please tell me. What I think you have to learn (and many of us out there) to do is to basically almost turn a deaf ear to criticism that makes you feel different, that makes you feel that because you're a woman you'll have problems. I learnt to do this early on. I found myself in a position that I was technically very competent at, so it gave me a lot of confidence. When I would go to breweries and I had to do business with brewers and technical people, I could speak their language. And I could actually have a very engaging conversation with them, and I knew that quite a lot of the times, I had an upper hand because their technical knowledge was not as good as mine. I worked on my strengths. Work on your strengths and take advantage of it. I always say that as a woman if they treat you like, poor thing, you need help, then take the help (laughs). You may not need it, but take it. I remember I used to take full advantage in the government offices. I used to go to the government offices for licenses. I remember going to a senior bureaucrat and telling him, 'you know I'm feeling very intimidated.' Why?' he asked. I replied, "When I'm sitting in your corridor waiting for you to call me in, some of these real new fixers and all come and tell me, you have to bribe to get this permission. My God, I'm getting quite scared, if I have to bribe then I don't know whether I should run a business. The bureaucrat said, 'No, no, no…don't believe anybody, you don't have to bribe.' I said, 'Oh great, I'm so happy then!' He said, 'Now don't sit in the corridor, from now you sit inside my room. Don't let people bug you. No, you don't have to bribe at all.' And the best part is that there are really good government people and folks out there. We just need to learn to see it constantly. You think everyone is bad, but it's not like that. I would say the majority of government people are very helpful, very good also. And I still remember, when I got my approvals, this poor chap sent me a telegram saying ‘congratulations, we've approved your company licence.’ Similarly, in Bangalore every time I used to go to the industries, the secretary's office, there would be a whole bunch of people, but I would always be asked first because I used to be the only woman there. It’s a great advantage being a woman. We just need to see it differently. And I never had to bribe. I would get all my stuff done. My male colleagues would be like, we are very envious of you and it's not fair, you never have to pay a bribe and we have to. Once they told me, ‘oh this fellow, he's a real corrupt guy, I challenge you, let me see how you will get away without paying this guy a bribe. He demands at least 10% cut of the subsidy otherwise he will not even give you the cheque.’ And I would walk in and get the cheque without doing anything. The guys would tell me, 'this is not fair, how come he gives it to you and not us.' and I remember replying, 'yeah because I'm a woman. He has no guts to ask me for bribe.' ‘But I'll tell you the real reason,’ I said. ‘I go personally and do all this work, you guys send your peons, your clerks, your subordinates. It serves you right.’ The moment you send in your subordinate, they will ask for money. But when you go on your own, who will ask you for money. That's a very important lesson that I taught myself and I am sharing it with you; if you want things done, do it yourself. My father also taught me one more thing, he said, when you ask for certain things from the government, don't do it with a vested interest for yourself, do it with a vested interest for the entire sector. I have learnt to do that, and today whenever I talk to the government, either the state government or central government, I don't go and say Biocon needs you. Maybe some of it Biocon doesn’t even need, but I talk for the industry because I want the industry to grow. Embrace this mindset of growth for all and see how growth embraces you in abundance. In a way, I fully subscribe to what Prime Minister Narendra Modi is doing in terms of dealing with crony capitalism. I've always had a lot of, you know, skepticism for this close nexus between industry and government. I've seen too much, where industry is constantly trying to corrupt the government to get a few freebies for themselves. I think that's wrong. I believe you have to do it for the whole sector so that whatever you're asking for, let everybody benefit, not just you. Although a lot of people might say Kiran is stupid, she doesn’t realize how business works, but those are the values I've grown up with -- ask for everyone, not just yourself, and see how you can impact all.
you are a first-generation entrepreneur as well as a pioneer of the biotechnology industry in India. How has your approach to business evolved over the years to make Biocon Asia’s leading bio-pharmaceutical enterprise?
“Our mantra is ‘highest quality at lowest cost’ and in order to prove that you have to have accreditation from top-notch regulatory agencies.” It has been a very long four-decade journey and over time we have evolved from being an enzyme-focused biotech company to a biopharmaceutical-focused biotech company. Biopharmaceuticals is a very important sector for India and for the world and I think what we have focused on as a company is looking at biopharmaceuticals as a class of medicines which are beyond the reach of most patients in the developing world. It is this very focus of providing affordable access that gave us the strategic intent to build a global biopharmaceutical company that had global scale both in terms of manufacturing and providing affordable access. We realized that biopharmaceuticals required huge investments both in terms of R&D and creating manufacturing facilities – and this is what I decided to do as an entrepreneur as I felt there was a big need as well as an opportunity to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the biopharmaceutical companies in India. Today, Biocon stands apart as a very different kind of biopharmaceutical company in India as we have strong leadership due to our strong global perspective of what we do. The fact that our biosimilar trastuzumab is the first biosimilar to trastuzumab approved by the US FDA is a testimony to that focus.
FDA’s approval of OgivriTM, the first biosimilar to trastuzumab, demonstrates Biocon’s robust scientific capabilities in developing complex products. What does this mean for Biocon?
This was a drug that was approved in India in 2014 and I am very pleased that our strategic intent, which was to provide affordable access to patients in the developing world, was met through this approval. In India we made a big difference because we expanded the market in terms of volume as we brought down the prices significantly – we forced down the prices I would say – and if you look at the discounted prices these products are sold in India it is a tenth of what it used to be elsewhere. Getting the approval of OgivriTM is a great endorsement of the quality of this product and to our capabilities to develop these complex drugs for global markets. As a company, we have focused very much on taking a path of differentiation which is doubtlessly a path full of challenges and risks because biosimilars require deep pockets and taking regulatory risks that are unknown – but we decided to go for it. This approval is, once again, a great validation of our strategy.
Biocon’s first novel biologic product was Nimotuzumab, an antibody drug for head and neck cancer. Since then, you launched several products, like human insulin and monoclonal antibodies for cancer and autoimmune diseases. What is your scope of activities and your product portfolio today?
Biocon has a good balance between novel and biosimilar drugs, but we also have a strong focus on APIs and generic finished formulations. We have a leading role in immunosuppressants in the field of APIs and that has kept us in a good position. We then moved up the value chain and decided to integrate our business into ANDAs and we have just entered this field. Biopharmaceuticals, however, are our main focus and as a company we are quite unique because we have already two antibodies in the Indian market and both molecules are very differentiated molecules. We are doing very well with BIOMAb EGFR® (Nimotuzumab) for head and neck cancer and ALZUMAb™ (Itolizumab) for psoriasis. [related_story] India is very new to biologic treatments and we want to change the paradigm of treatment for diseases like cancer and autoimmune diseases. Itolizumab, specifically, is a very unique molecule as it is a ‘first in class’ biologic, a humanized recombinant anti-CD6 monoclonal antibody for the treatment of patients with active moderate to severe chronic plaque psoriasis. It plays in a very exclusive pathway and has a novel mechanism of action, different from that of TNFα or IL inhibitors. While India is not well known for novel drugs, we are trying to change that. And I think we will because we have a very exciting pipeline of novel drugs. India has huge capabilities – take for instance the clinical trials space. We have the best centers, the best clinicians, the best CROs but our environment has not been very conducive when it comes to developing new drugs. There are some challenges that the government has been facing in terms of novel drugs development – but now a lot of Indian companies want to innovate, be it in biopharmaceuticals or pharmaceuticals. Sun Pharma, for instance, is investing a lot, Piramal, Lupin, Glenmark have also a great interest in innovating.
While private companies are heavily increasing their R&D spending, India as a country spends less than USD 1 per capita on healthcare research. Does India have the technological capabilities or the infrastructure to emerge as a biotech hub?
I think biopharmaceuticals have great and advanced infrastructure in India. If you look at Bangalore itself you have the Indian Institute of Science, the National Center for Biological Sciences, the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences and of course the whole genomic effort through various centers. There are very advanced centers and some of them collaborate with Trinity College and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. We are 1,200 start ups in life sciences in India and 50 percent of them are in Bangalore. We have various incubators that foster these start-ups. Research spending should not be looked in the broad sense, USD 1 spend per capita on healthcare research does not represent the current biopharma scene. When you deal with a population of 1.3 billion everything looks tiny. I would rather look at what is happening in biotech. If you look at the research spend on an academic level and the research spend at the industry level, you will notice that it is quite high. For instance, there is a company right now called Bugworks which is developing the next generation of antibiotics, because it realized that super bugs play a crucial role right now and because Bangalore has a huge capability in software and computational science, you find this kind of companies located in the city.
you launched BASALOG®, your Insulin Glargine injection, in the Japanese market through your partner FFP. Can you talk us through the market access journey of the product in one of the world’s most stringently regulated markets?
Our mantra is ‘highest quality at lowest cost’ and in order to prove that you have to have accreditation from top-notch regulatory agencies. For us, the US FDA is the crowning glory for any company aspiring to play in this business. Japan is also a very stringent market and we got our insulin glargine approved by the PMDA. It was a big milestone for us. Once again, this demonstrates our robust expertise and the fact that we are capable of having a product approved even in highly regulated markets like Japan. That gave us the confidence that we could start creating the label of ‘high quality’ for all our products. Every product we develop will get marketed in these countries whose regulators are synonymous with high quality. The WHO recently included trastuzumab and human insulin in their essential medicine list and we will contribute to their endeavour of making the treatment of cancer and diabetes affordable.
Shares of Biocon added two percent intraday earlier in a month as your partner Mylan resubmitted marketing authorization applications (MAAs) for the two biosimilars: Trastuzumab (Roche’s Herceptin) and Pegfilgrastim (Amgen’s Neulasta) to the EMA. How is this long-standing partnership helping Biocon position itself as a world leader in biosimilars worldwide whilst being different from other global biotech companies?
Biocon and Mylan have always had a strategic partnership in the space of biosimilars and we recognized this opportunity in 2009. Even at that time, I think both companies recognized that this was going to be a huge need and a huge opportunity. Mylan recognized that biosimilars was going to drive growth for them and for us it was certainly a very important business strategy with which we could grow. We entered this partnership to develop a diverse portfolio of products, where Mylan, because of its stronger commercial profile, would actually lead the commercial side of the partnership in the US and the EU. So far, it has worked out very well for both partners and I do believe that this a partnership that will deliver good returns for both parties.
What is the role that you would like Biocon to play locally and internationally in the future?
We see ourselves as a company that has great capabilities and is investing big time in not just expanding these capabilities but also expanding our focus on innovation and on building global scale in our operations. The Western model has been about low volume – high value, we believe in the opposite. This makes a difference to patients. My legacy is about making a difference in human health and I would like India to be able to provide good quality basic healthcare. To the young aspiring entrepreneurs, I would like to say that there are endless possibilities to solve problems for countries like India and the world. If you have a deep-routed sense of purpose to make a difference, you can.
When you donned the entrepreneur’s cap the world was gender biased. Do you feel the phenomenon continues? If yes, how is it manifested in the 21st century?
Yes, there is perceptible gender discrimination when it comes to women entrepreneurs even today. Funding favours male entrepreneurs. Having said that, there are a number of women specific soft loans and seed funding which is available to aspiring women entrepreneurs.
What is the difference between the global business scene and the corresponding Indian scenario for biotechnology in general and Biocon in specific?
India ranks 4th globally in the Biotech sector. Its current $5 billion size is poised to attain a size of $100 billion by 2025 through leadership in Biogenerics, Bt crops, gene sequencing and Biofuels. Biocon is ranked 20th in size globally and the 7th largest Biotech employer. Biocon is the only Asian Biotech company to feature amongst the world’s Top 25 Biotech companies.
Being a woman in business. a successful entrepreneur and a role model. what tips would you give young women professionals?
Why did you choose this industry? When and how was an entrepreneur born in you? How difficult was it for you to pave your way as an industrialist?
I chose to become an entrepreneur due to an adverse set of circumstances that did not allow me a fair employment opportunity in my field of Brewing. I started Biocon as a fall back option to apply my Brewing knowledge to a related field – enzymes. My determination to succeed and prove to the gender biased world that women can make good business managers brought out my entrepreneurial qualities. My journey has been challenging all the way. First I had to overcome credibility challenges as a young, inexperienced woman of 25 trying to pioneer a new sector – Biotechnology. Then I had technological challenges of funding and scaling up a home grown proprietary fermentation based enzymes technology. I then had evolutionary and regulatory challenges of transforming the business from enzymes to Biopharmaceuticals. Today it’s innovation challenges of bringing new drugs to global markets. I am also addressing a new set of challenges that are about managing overseas operations in US, Europe, UAE and Malaysia. Overcoming each set of challenges has enabled me to augment my stature as a business leader.
You started with the dream of becoming a Doctor but ultimately followed your heart and set an example for all students. In a country where parents see only Engineering and Medicine as decent career options, how can a person truly follow their dreams without hurting their family?
The opportunities in every field are so vast and exciting that every young person can pursue their passion. India in the ’60s was an under resourced country with limited job opportunities. India today is a rapidly developing economy where the even the sky is not the limit!
What is your vision for Biocon? What philanthropic activities are you looking forward to be a part of in the near future?
I see Biocon as the torch bearer of innovation from India that makes global impact in Diabetes, Cancer and Immunological disorders. I see Biocon as a leading Insulins and Antibody company that delivers affordable drugs to patients across the world. Our philanthropy is therefore invested in India’s quest for universal healthcare that provides Right to Healthcare. My personal philanthropy is in Cancer care where I have partnered with Dr Devi Shetty to establish the country’s largest Cancer hospital, The Mazumdar-Shaw Cancer Center.
From the Padma Shree to the Padma Bhushan to being in TIME magazine’s ‘Most Influential People’ list- you’ve won lots of awards. If you had to choose any one which remains closest to your heart, which would that be?
Every one of these recognitions is special and something I will always cherish. The Padma awards are most special as they are symbols of national pride. I am a very proud Indian.
What would be your message to the youth of the nation? In your opinion, how important is it for the youth to voice themselves and participate in shaping the future of the world’s largest democracy?
The youth have the moral responsibility to lead the country into the future. They represent more than 50% of our population and therefore must show courage and leadership by engaging in all aspects of our democratic processes to truly realize our demographic dividend.
UK PM Theresa May doesn’t have children. There was an insinuation that the fact made her unfit for the top job. Is there a bias against women who don't have children?
There is a global gender bias, but women have proved them [their critics] wrong. These are misogynistic biases that cannot be substantiated. I have been a victim of this too from time to time, but I have stood and stuck by what I am doing. Recently, on Twitter the trolls kept hurling abuses, ‘You don’t know what you are doing’, ‘You are a woman, therefore you should not be leading your business’, ‘Look what other Indian pharma companies are doing, your stock is not rising’, ‘You are wasting money’, ‘You are backing the wrong horse’. But now that we are beginning to succeed and are the only company pursuing global strategies, people have woken up and realised that what I have been doing over the past several years has paid rich dividends. [Biocon’s stock rallied almost 80 per cent, resulting in the best return among shares of generic drugmakers globally]. So, you have to think about what you are doing. I always say, ‘Women, forget about all the criticism, it is going to be there. Believe in what you are doing and you will succeed’. And that is what strong women do. I think Angela Merkel is doing what she believes in and succeeding. She is not looked at as just a woman, but as a very powerful leader. That is the way I am looked at today. I am not just a woman business leader, but a business leader. Indra Nooyi is not looked at as a woman executive, she is a global business leader.
One of the main concerns of women joining the work force is sexual harassment.What is the policy in your organisation?
It is about building a trusting environment and creating awareness. It is about making men and women realise what they need to understand about working in the same workplace. Sometimes, it is perception. Perceived sexual harassment is also not correct. People sometimes misunderstand things, and blow them out of proportion. [Just] make sure people behave responsibly and you report things which are not very good for the system.
You were on TERI’s governing body when the sexual harassment case against the ex-director general Rajendra Pachauri came to light. How did you deal with the situation? Why did you decide to step down eventually?
These are old things. I resigned from the board on principle.
Apart from Biocon, you occupy a leadership position in the capacity of an independent director on some other boards, like IIM Bengaluru, Infosys and Narayana Hrudayalaya. What does such a role entail?
Every independent director has certain responsibilities towards good governance, enhancing and contributing to business strategy and that is how I see my role. For me, it is about good governance. I am on the board of United Breweries (UB) as well and there also we adopt very good governance practices, irrespective of what the media might think.
How did your association with Serendipity Arts Festival come about?
Sunil Munjal (Chairman, Hero Corporate Services, and the festival’s chief organiser) told me he would like me to participate in this festival as he wanted to model it around the lines of Edinburgh Art Festival. I agreed and wanted to introduce a fusion of art and science in driving creativity. Design, art and science are all a mélange. I want to get people to think about it without any boundaries.