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R&D growth sees shortage of drug scientists

May 19, 2007 02:32 IST

It took Sunil Sharma ten years to leave his first company, a Mumbai-based drug R&D firm, for a Delhi-based pharmaceutical major.

Ten months into the new job, Sharma finds himself inundated with offers -- he has turned down at least 10 offers to either head R&D set-ups or start new R&D units. "This will continue for the next five years," says he.

With India slowly but steadily morphing into a global pharmaceutical R&D hub, scientists have run into short supply. There are some 5,000 scientists working in pharmaceutical laboratories across the country, a quarter more than around 4,000 a year ago.

S K Gupta, dean, Institute of Clinical Research India, reckons the numbers would grow by 30 per cent annually, at least for the next three to four years. In other words, the number of scientists on the rolls of pharmaceutical companies could more than double in the next three years.

With the country reverting to a product patent regime from January 1, 2005, Indian pharmaceutical companies are investing large sums of money in R&D. According to KPMG Partner Hitesh Gajaria, the annual R&D spend of domestic companies has shot up from around 2 per cent of the turnover in the pre-product patent world to 6-7 per cent now.

At the same time, overseas pharmaceutical companies have realised that there are serious savings to be made by re-locating R&D work, especially late-discovery and early-development functions, to India.

The cost of discovering a new drug has shot up to over a billion dollars abroad, while the productivity of R&D laboratories is down. Indian scientists, with their expertise in process chemistry, are now helping them trim their costs.

In the recent past, several overseas companies like GlaxoSmithkline, Novartis, Pliva, Astra Zeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Johnson & Johnson have announced plans to locate critical R&D work in India either on their own or in partnership with local drug makers.

In addition, several contract research organisations have come up in the country, hoping to grab a part of the global R&D initiative. For instance, Tata-promoted Advinus (short for Advantage India+US), which has around 60 scientists on its rolls currently, plans to ramp up the number to 550 by 2010.

As a result, salaries commanded by scientists have become the envy of corporate executives.

"The annual salaries of top scientists in leading drug companies are in the range of Rs 1 crore to Rs 4 crore," says the HR head of a leading pharmaceutical company.

"Leading companies are paying their R&D heads the money they cannot expect even in the US," adds J M Khanna, executive director & president (life sciences), Jubilant Organosys.

Joe C Mathew in New Delhi