Meet the self-made woman leading biotechnology

Think:Act Magazine "On Being Human"
Meet the self-made woman leading biotechnology

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Think:Act Magazine

Munich Office, Central Europe
December 10, 2018

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw on her biotech company Biocon and how she pioneered biotechnology in India


by Rohini Mohan
photos by Jyothy Karat

She started off wanting to brew beer, but ended up leading India's first biotech startup. Undaunted by gender bias and other obstacles, Biocon's CEO Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw has sharpened her focus on global healthcare and has used her unique leadership style to build a pioneering multibillion-dollar company.

She is a self-made woman, one of the richest in India, and is regarded as the founder of the country's biotech industry. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw founded Biocon in the late 1970s. It has gone on to make a range of biopharma generics to treat autoimmune diseases, diabetes and cancer and is one of the world's largest producers of insulin and breast cancer drugs. In her office in Electronic City, Bengaluru, Biocon's CEO reveals that she was neither an engineer nor a businessperson – until she discovered she had the aptitude for both.

After school, she trained in Australia to be a brewmaster, just like her father, who worked at United Breweries. It was not exactly a conventional career path for a woman in India at the time. When no one would hire her, she upped sticks and left for Scotland where a chance meeting with Leslie Auchincloss, the founder of Irish biotechnology company Biocon Biochemicals, changed her career trajectory. He let her use the name of his company and she started Biocon in India as a joint venture with him. She called her business "a multinational company." Indeed, its promoters were from two different countries. But the lesser-known fact was that Biocon was operating out of a garage of a rented house in Bengaluru (then Bangalore), with a seed capital of only of about $1,000, an unreliable power supply and just two employees. But she gathered enough investment and began the business with an innovation for extracting enzymes from papaya and catfish to clarify beer.

When Unilever acquired the Irish company it also picked up the 30% stake in Shaw's Indian operation. Shaw noticed that overnight Lipton Ice Tea started using her clarifying enzyme and that early recognition of the possibilities of her technology visibly enthuses her even today.

Shaw's Biocon is now a biopharmaceutical and research giant focused on global healthcare . It sells drugs in over 120 countries and has one of the world's largest portfolios of biosimilars with a market size of over $61 billion. Even after Biocon went public in 2004, few biotech companies have followed suit – they're too small, struggle to lure scientists away from universities and are unable to attract funds in clinical genomics in the way Biocon has. This is in large part because of Shaw's own efforts. Her interactions with funding, regulatory agencies, politicians and health sector leaders gave the technical biotech sector a relatable face. Here she shares some thoughts on what drove her to build the company and what made it successful.

What was on your mind when you woke up today?
Today I was to address a young group of students graduating from the Biocon Academy, and I was wondering what to say to them. I told them that unless you have a meaningful sense of purpose, you won't ask the hard questions. Biotech has the opportunity to address a plethora of big needs. For instance, India is an agrarian economy, but our farmers are challenged with poor productivity. If scientists looked at agriculture biotech we could find exciting new answers to ward off pests or address drought and poor soil conditions. The other opportunity is industrial biotech , where enzyme technology could create non-polluting products and fix our cities.

"My sense of purpose when I embarked on this journey was to make an impact on global healthcare through providing affordable access."
Portrait of Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw

Healthcare reformer

What was your sense of purpose when you first started Biocon?
My sense of purpose when I embarked on this journey was to make an impact on global healthcare through providing affordable access. The World Health Organization's 5.1 Program identifies that 5.1 billion people on the planet have little or no access to modern medicines. We are trying to make a difference to those people.

When you started Biocon in 1978, what were the challenges you faced?
I was 25 years old. I was a woman. I had no business experience. I had no money in the bank. And I was trying to start a company in biotechnology, which no one had heard of. I had studied fermentation technology, but no one gave a woman a job as a brewmaster. The industry had a huge gender bias. But along the way you find people who understand what you're trying to say and come on board. Without even realizing it, I believe I set up the first tech startup in India.

Why biotechnology?
When no one allowed me to brew beer, I started making industrial enzymes – only a few steps away from beer! I developed plant enzyme technology for the food industry, whether it was yeast for beer or bread, fruit juices, dairy, etc. I was trying to advance food science. I was also developing eco-friendly technology to replace chemicals, like starch. Then in 1998, I thought I could leverage the fermentation and recombinant technology for something even more exciting: biopharmaceuticals.

You kick-started the biotech industry in India. How has it evolved?
Indian pharma has made a huge global impact on generic drugs and vaccines, but biopharmaceuticals are more complex. The sterile facilities, the delicate technology and safety precautions required make them inherently expensive. So, we have to combine engineering and life science skills to develop the technology. The innovation can never end. Thankfully, the head of my R&D was this IT-crazy guy and he developed a very networked platform that kept us ahead of the curve.

As a business leader, and a pioneer in the Indian biotech industry, how would you describe your management philosophy?
My driving business philosophy is highest quality at lowest cost. I've thought long and hard about that balance and found my answers in integrity and compliance. India has a reputation of not being very honest about compliance. We have a lot of issues with international regulatory bodies. I take this very seriously and I am ruthless about compliance, data integrity and quality. A proactive quality focus is key for me. Even if it takes time, even if it is initially expensive, this is crucial in the long term.

You can demand quality at the very top. How do you ensure that people throughout the company believe in the same philosophy?
By having a problem-solving mindset. This culture gives people a larger purpose, makes them more creative, more invested in quality. When they solve a problem, it gives them a sense of empowerment and achievement. I encourage my employees to not fear failure. I've tried to teach people to own problems, rather than carry out tasks.

Young researchers and scientists joined Biocon because they knew they were helping me build the company. A lot of the technologies we developed were homegrown. India was quite underresourced then, without the ability to import many ingredients or technologies, so we had to be quite ingenious, find frugal workarounds to make something very sophisticated.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw

Mazumdar-Shaw entered the biotech industry via innovations in enzymes for the food industry. She has earned a reputation as a healthcare reformer and was the 2014 recipient of the Othmer Gold Medal for outstanding contributions to the progress of science and chemistry.

Why was innovating homegrown technologies important to you?
People asked me that a lot – especially when capital was hard to come by. Nobody wanted to back a new idea. They asked: Why are you trying to take a big risk on this homegrown technology that may not scale up, may not work? I said: That's the basis of our business, that's what sets it apart from everything else in the world. I only realized the power of our ideas when Unilever bought over our Irish partners and ascribed a huge value only to the Indian operation because of the homegrown technology. And then again, in 2010, I got huge value for the intellectual property we had created on technologies. [By 2010, Biocon had 200 patents worldwide.] That's when I realized the power of patents and innovation. That is why thinking out of the box has to be firmly engrained in Biocon's DNA. That's what makes us.

Along with your business, you have set up a cancer research foundation and even subsidize medical care in some hospitals. Why is such philanthropy important to you?
I live in a country with a lot of inequities. I started to look at my own field of healthcare. Could I do more? Around then, a dear friend succumbed to cancer. She was an affluent career woman, but even she could not bear the financial burden of cancer treatment. I had developed all these affordable products, but I realized patients needed affordable treatment. So, I partnered with Devi Shetty [of Narayana Health] to replicate his low-cost cardiac care model for cancer. I built the Mazumdar-Shaw Cancer hospital and he set it up. We also insisted that we embed a translational research center.

My philanthropy is really about helping people build sustainable models. Whether it is providing a chair or a fellowship, or funding some research, it is a long-term model. Philanthropy as risk capital is important, especially since it's so rare.

Rohini Mohan
Rohini Mohan is a prize-winning political journalist based in Bangalore. She has written on politics, ecological issues, and human rights in South Asia for 15 years, for publications including The New York Times, Harper's, Foreign Policy, The Economic Times, The Caravan, and The Hindu. She has an MA in political journalism from Columbia University, New York.
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Munich Office, Central Europe