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Start-up frenzy reflects a herd-like mentality: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw

April 25, 2016 09:56 IST

'I have learnt that gender discrimination obliterates when you succeed and overcome credibility and perception hurdles'

India wasn't ready for a woman brewmaster in the 1970s when Kiran Mazumdar returned from Australia with a degree in brewing. No one was willing to take the risk of hiring a woman, not even United Breweries, where her father, Rasendra Mazumdar, had worked for 27 years.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw's is a story that would have turned out very differently had she not met Leslie Auchincloss, then the owner of Ireland's Biocon Biochemicals. She joined him for a trial period of one year. Thirty-seven years later, she is still anchored to the biopharmaceutical company as its chairman and managing director.

In her book, Mythbreaker: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and the Story of Indian Biotech, Seema Singh traces Biocon's story in the country and how she has become poster woman of biotechnology. In an e-mail interview, Mazumdar-Shaw talks to Nikita Puri about Mythbreaker. Excerpts:

If you hadn't agreed to Leslie Auchincloss's proposal to join Biocon, where would you be?

I would have been a brewer in Scotland! I was heading to take up a job that I had been offered in Inverness in Scotland when I had that fateful meeting with Leslie Auchinclos which changed my life's course.

Mythbreaker talks about a blatant gender discrimination that existed when you came back from Australia with a degree in brewing. How have things changed since then?

I have learnt that gender discrimination obliterates when you succeed and overcome credibility and perception hurdles. The moment I established that I was profitable and could infuse confidence in my employees, the banks stopped treating me as a gender risk.

When you started out, very few knew what biotech could offer. Has the reaction of bureaucrats and investors changed over the years?

We are still a risk-averse country. Most bureaucrats and banks don't like to back new business ideas. In recent times, though, the start-up frenzy has changed some of this. But this is a herd-like mentality as they only back e-tailing and not life science ventures based on genomics et cetera.

In your opinion, what are some of Biocon's greatest achievements?

Being a pioneer in enzyme technology was a big achievement. We now see ourselves as a diabetes company making big global impact in insulin therapy. We are also recognised globally as an immuno-oncology company, providing affordable access to complex and expensive biopharmaceuticals across the world.

Our IPO in 2004 saw us make a billion-dollar debut as India's first biotech stock on the Indian bourses, which we repeated when we listed the country's first research services company, Syngene, in 2015.

Keeping in mind the Make in India rhetoric, what are some of the challenges that biotech faces in the current ecosystem?

Inadequate infrastructure is the biggest impediment. Unre-liable power supply, poor roads and logistics adds to the issue.

The book also refers to your struggles with clinical trials in India. How have things progressed on that front? Also, in hindsight, would you have handled some clinical trial cases differently?

We are now seeing light at the end of a very dark tunnel. Owing to late Ranjit Roy Chaudhury, and now the Indian Council of Medical Research under the leadership of Soumya Swaminathan, there is a renewed hope that clinical trials will resume.

I guess my learning about regulatory strategies is much better now, and I may have designed many clinical trials differently - for example, oral insulin.

(Historically, researchers have tried to develop oral insulin since the early 1920s but have failed consistently, shares Mythbreaker. In the book, Singh delves into how Mazumdar-Shaw adopted a high-risk approach towards oral insulin, with Nobex Corporation and GlaxoSmithKline also thrown into the mix.)

Apart from promoting innovation and contributing to cancer research, you are head of Bangalore Political Action Committee. What are the causes you personally espouse?

All of the above. The right to healthcare is something I deeply believe in. I also believe that we as a community must come together to solve many of our problems, be it garbage, traffic, water, education or health.

Given that this book is an independent effort and not commissioned by a publisher, what prompted you to give so much of your time to the author?

Seema Singh convinced me that the Indian biotech story needed to be chronicled in a readable format, which she felt could be done through my own journey of building Biocon. I have always been impressed with the way Seema has written on biotech issues as a journalist; she researches before she writes, which very few people do today.

Photograph: Reuters