They are the hottest, most sought after people in India's pharmaceuticals industry. They're constantly wooed with offers by head hunters.
Some 14 drug companies are ready to poach drug discovery scientists like T Rajamanna, senior vice-president (organic synthesis) at Sun Pharmaceuticals, B B Lohray, president of research and development (R&D) at Cadila Healthcare, Rashmi Barbhaiya, former head of R&D at Ranbaxy Laboratories, Javed Iqbal, senior vice-president of R&D, Dr Reddy's Laboratories, Sudarshan Arora, president, new chemical entity, Lupin Laboratories, Rama Mukherjee, director of Dabur Research Foundation, Kasim Muktiyar, vice-president, new drug discovery at Ranbaxy Laboratories.
As drug companies like Dr Reddy's, Ranbaxy, Wockhardt, Lupin, Nicholas Piramal, Sun Pharma, Glenmark Pharmaceuticals, Suven Pharma, Cadila Healthcare, Orchid Chemicals, Torrent Pharma, Unichem, Alembic and Aurobindo Pharma leap into the drug discovery arena, they're confronted by a stark fact: India has hardly seven or eight drug discovery scientists with the right kind of experience and qualifications.
Confirms Glenn Saldanha, managing director and CEO of Glenmark Pharmaceuticals, which is doing basic research on areas like asthma, diabetes and obesity: "There indeed is a shortage of discovery-oriented scientific talent pool in the country -- only a handful with the requisite skills exists."
So pharmaceutical companies that employ them protect them fiercely. They pay them well (their salaries are closely guarded secrets), as highly as scientists in the West. Indeed, the gap between their salaries and the pay cheques of R&D scientists and other professionals in a drug company can range between 30-50 per cent -- and is widening by 25 per cent a year, says the managing director of a Hyderabad-based pharmaceutical company.
Predictably, many companies provide them with the best working environment in the world. Nicholas Piramal, for example, is investing Rs 70-80 crore (Rs 700-Rs 800 million) in building a state-of-the art research unit for its scientists.
Says Swati Piramal, director and chief scientific officer of Nicholas Piramal, "We have to create the right kind of environment to cultivate and retain scientific talent."
Suven Pharma is working on a restricted stock option and other fiscal incentives to retain its drug discovery scientists.
Wockhardt has already put in place a scientist succession plan. It said Mahesh Patel, the scientist who heads anti-infective discovery research in the company, would take over from Noel D'Souza, director of R&D at Wockhardt, well in advance of D'Souza's retirement later this year.
All this is because India's pharmaceutical industry is moving up the R&D chain. Earlier, pharmaceutical companies used to tinker with molecular processes to arrive at a new drug (the so-called reverse engineering).
With a product patent regime around the corner, many companies are now hitting the drug discovery route so that they can launch original products. But they are finding that experienced scientists are scarce. "We have many technical people but not people trained in drug discovery. That's because Indian entrepreneurs found that the cost of drug discovery was high, with no guarantees of commercial success in this field," notes Venkat Jasti, managing director, Suven Lifesciences.
Some companies are scouting for drug discovery scientists overseas. Says Piramal: "I do not foresee a major difficulty in bringing back to India drug discovery-oriented scientists who are currently in multinational companies."
Companies are also pushing for legislation, as in the US, to protect their intellectual property when scientists switch jobs. Till then, men like Rajamanna and Lohray will ride the gravy train.