How a woman without an engineering degree built India’s first bio-tech empire

Quartz india
Quartz india

“She is pushing sixty and still at it,” I said to Leslie Auchincloss.

“I am eighty-two and I am also at it,” he shot back seriously, going on to admit that he was gobsmacked at what Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw had done with her garage start-up in 37 years, one that he had helped start and grow. He marvelled at how, in her entrepreneurial journey, she has managed to break the kind of myths that abound in the Indian scenario—a tech start-up seeded nearly four decades ago in life sciences and not information or communication technology, by a woman who was not an engineer and who did not come from a business family.

As one of India’s earliest technology start-ups (the other being Patni Computers, founded in 1976), Biocon today stands solitary among its peers. No life science business of scale has come up in nearly 15 years. When Biocon went public in 2004, many believed it would pave the way for other biotechnology companies to follow suit.  Economic Darwinism and reverent isolationism of Indian academics have ensured that biotech companies remain small. Not a single firm did. If anything, the second company—though only tangentially biotech—to list in July 2015 was Syngene, also from the Biocon stable. In early 2016, Strand Life Sciences opted to go to Nasdaq, in a reverse merger with an American diagnostics company. Raising growth capital in clinical genomics was proving to be daunting in India.

Economic Darwinism and reverent isolationism of Indian academics have ensured that biotech companies remain small. It’s unfortunate, because this is the age of biology, just as the 20th century was the age of physics. All global metrics point towards more real tech innovations happening in life sciences or at its intersection with other disciplines.

A brewer turns biotech queen

Still, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw managed multiple risks to build business within business, consistently ratcheting her company’s scientific capability and, no less importantly, her own public profile. Much like evolution, but on a shorter time frame. A brewer who did not understand what a joint venture meant, today makes a deal almost every quarter. As I learnt, much of her selection, like in nature, has been based on random mutation.

Biotech companies have traditionally started with science. She started with technology, and added science at the back end, and then kept adding to it. A good part of that thrust had to do with her early team of chemical engineers, almost all of them from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), a brand that fuelled Silicon Valley’s start-up engine as well. It was not by design, she says. “All those who understood biotech in those days gravitated towards me. At that time, it made a lot more sense to get engineers who would help me deliver products, it was never about science.”

Over time, she became a brand ambassador, not just of a fledgling industry but of innovation-led business in general. By interacting with the funding and regulatory agencies and the political system, she gave a face to the industry. “It would have been difficult to build the industry without a face. In the vaccine industry, there were some very credible and visible people, but she emerged as a stronger face of tough entrepreneurship,” says Maharaj Kishan Bhan, former secretary, department of biotechnology.

Pursuing life sciences is expensive. One of India’s foremost chemists, Gautam Desiraju, once told me that India has done well in chemistry, and he was referring to the success of generics companies because “chemistry is cheap.” Of course, he was lamenting the resources available for science in India but the point he made explains why the chemistry-based pharmaceutical industry grew faster and became bigger than biotech in India in the same span of time.

Given the similar talent pool both sectors tap into, comparisons are inevitable. In fact, in the course of writing this book, some pharmaceutical executives asked me why I was not writing instead about Dilip Shanghvi, founder of Sun Pharmaceuticals, which, after numerous acquisitions, had emerged as the biggest pharma company in India and the fifth largest generics company in the world. Another pharma chief vexedly said, “Biotech entrepreneurs complain too much.”

Policy hara-kiri

Like in business, in science, too, the methods of chemistry and biology are competitive.  “Biotech entrepreneurs complain too much.” As this famous 1936 conversation between the American electrical genius Charles Steinmetz and Nobel Prize-winning chemist Carl Bosch, then head of the German chemical company IG Farben, goes: “Bosch, I know you can make indigo cheaper than God, some day you may make rubber cheaper than God, but you will never make cellulose cheaper than God.” That was before the Second World War, before biologists and engineers had been introduced to the power of biotechnology.

That power unleashed a Janus-faced tool in the hands of tech tinkerers, but countries like India dragged their feet in regulatory overhaul. Policy often lags behind innovation but to lag behind by more than a decade is hara-kiri.

In August 2001, when former US president George Bush announced that only 64 stem cell lines could be used for doing research using federal money in the United States, 10 of those cell lines being from two Indian laboratories, I had just returned from a journalism fellowship programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Programme director and former science editor at the New York Times, Boyce Rensberger, said I had a “bonanza” waiting for me back home since I could write “so many stories on stem cells from India.” I did write a few, but they were more about their runaway commercial use in the absence of any regulation, not on any breakthroughs. India, unfortunately, had become notorious for snake oil treatments.

Fifteen years later, with Stempeutics winning a patent in Japan and regulatory approval for orphan drug indication in the European Union for its stem cells product, the industry stands partly exonerated. But remember, it took the Bengaluru company eight years to get here.

Regulatory hoops impact the speed and scale of biotech business, which then impact how often a biotech entrepreneur hits the headlines, how “cool” or “uncool” she is in public perception.

In 2011, a reporter from India Today’s Delhi office visited XCyton, a molecular diagnostics company in Bengaluru, and spent two days understanding the multiplex technology and the Bio Safety Level-3 lab that the company runs. Then he made an error—he missed the decimal in the revenue figure—and was heard pleading with his editor for his story to live. The story was eventually killed. For the magazine, the marker for success was a certain revenue cut-off; the brand new technology did not matter.

Science and business

Some of these Ph.D holders and scientists don’t make your typical entrepreneur. They do not build companies for scale or exit, but is it a cause or an effect that the famous Saxenian “brain circulation” phenomenon has not occurred in biotech? Founders still cannot find science-minded business executives as their replacements.

In 2005, when Janakiraman Ramachandran was raising the second round of funding in India for Gangagen, which he founded after retiring from AstraZeneca India Research Centre, an Indian fund almost ready to invest was dissuaded by a veteran investor because “the founder was seventy!” Ramachandran returned to the Bay Area in San Francisco and since then has raised $28 million. Gangagen’s novel molecule, anti-Staph recombinant polypeptide, is designed and developed in Bengaluru, produced at Syngene, and it recently completed phase-two clinical trials in Singapore.

A decade later, sentiments are a bit different.

De novo biotechs are finally being born, though still countable on your fingers. And a functional cluster is finally emerging in Bengaluru—followed by Hyderabad, Pune, and Delhi—in which Biocon and Kiran seem to have played anchoring roles. De novo biotechs are finally being born, though still countable on your fingers. 

Cluster development is not easy; there is no formulaic process to do it. Japan and parts of Europe have tried building them without success. The true biotech clusters of the United States were not built by design, in the top-down manner that Singapore has tried with Biopolis. However, to the successful clusters of Boston, Bay Area, and San Diego, there’s been a new addition—Cambridge, in the United Kingdom, which has been a long time in the making.

Clusters are also not made through policy alone—it’s a mix of people, academics and industry, even media. In Bengaluru, a large number of engineering and aerospace public sector units provided the working-class culture, similar to what the defence industry offered in San Diego.

“It is part circumstance, part climate,” says the current biotech secretary K. Vijay Raghavan, “and part distance from Delhi.”

Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins from Mythbreaker: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and the Story of Indian Biotech by Seema Singh. We welcome your comments at

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