Dr Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, the Executive Chairperson of Biocon Ltd, is a woman of tremendous substance. Recipient of the Padma Shri in 1989 and the Padma Bhushan in 2005, Mazumdar-Shaw has over 45 years of experience in biotechnology and was recognised by Forbes as one of the world’s most powerful women in 2020. Her astounding journey from a trainee brewer to the helm of a highly respected global biopharmaceutical corporation is an inspirational story of innovation and entrepreneurship, bold and ambitious initiatives, and the irrepressible drive to think and act big
PD: You began your career as a brewmaster. It’s an unorthodox career, especially for women. Was brewing a conscious choice to begin with?
KM: It wasn’t a conscious choice to begin with. It was actually my late father who seeded that idea into me. I wanted to pursue a career in applied science after I finished my BS Zoology honors. He said ‘Why not brewing? Brewing is like biotechnology, it is life sciences, it’s fermentation science and I think this is an area which will be very interesting. We need good brewers in this country who are scientific and we don’t have enough of them. You should do it.’
I thought it was very unconventional advice for a woman to be pursuing fermentation science in a country like India. He said ‘Why are you looking at it as an industry a woman can’t enter? It is a science-led industry. It is bio technology. So why are you not looking at it that way?’ He convinced me and I must give him all credit. I went to Australia as the first woman student of brewing at Ballarat University and pursued brewing science. It was very interesting, very fascinating. Later on when I started my company it was my understanding of fermentation science that has come so useful in the way I have built Biocon. Because everything in Biocon is so fermentation-led. I understand it deeply. God bless his soul, but I really am so grateful to my dad for persuading me to pursue brewing.
PD: You have almost 45 years of experience in this industry. How did the transition from brewmaster to entrepreneur in biotech happen?
KM: : My father had so much faith in me. He was a liberal thinker who felt you should be agnostic to gender because it is about science and technology. Why look at it as a man’s job or a woman’s job? But unfortunately the people hiring were not like my dad. So I faced a huge gender barrier when I was looking for a job. And they would all say to me ‘Look, you are very accomplished and your technical skills are excellent, but this is not a job for a woman. And for us it is very high risk because we do not have any woman working in the brewery. If you come in and take up the brewmaster’s job that would be a shock for people. This is a very rough and tough industry – you have to deal with excise officials, you have to deal with labour unions; we don’t think you can do all that.’
I said, why not, I’m willing to do that. But they didn’t want to risk it. They preferred a man for the job. So I couldn’t get a job. I felt very disappointed and disillusioned. I started looking for a job outside the country. I said if India feels this way about women in the brewing industry, maybe I should look elsewhere. So I actually found a job in Scotland. But just before I joined, I had an accidental encounter with an Irish biotech entrepreneur who had heard about me and tracked me down in India. He persuaded me to join him in setting up Biocon in India. He said after all it’s about enzyme technology and brewing is all about that. He said he himself was a brewer in the past, so why would I not be successful? He said ‘I think you should join me in building this company.’
He convinced me it was a very exciting opportunity, and he said ‘If you don’t enjoy it in a year, I promise you I will find you a job in the brewing industry.’ With that assurance, it was a protected risk and I said ok. So instead of going to Scotland, I went to Ireland. I learned about enzyme technologies and about the business and I came back to India and started Biocon at the end of 1978.
I had a small rented home and converted the garage into my office. That’s how I started Biocon. Then I rented out a small shed near where I lived and started building the business very frugally. My first two employees were retired tractor mechanics because nobody wanted to join me. Nobody felt secure working for a woman in those days. I found it difficult to hire even a secretary. I then found a friend of mine who felt sorry for me and helped me with my secretarial work. That’s how I started Biocon.
In those days, people were very hostile, there was a huge gender bias. People didn’t want to work for a woman, there was no support for women entrepreneurs and being a woman and trying to run a business was very tough. They considered you to be a high risk. You were not bankable because you are a woman. You were a risk even for people who wanted to be employed because they felt would not get job security. And even when I started my business, they’d say ‘Why don’t you send your manager? You don’t have a man in your office?’ And I’d say, no it’s just me. They didn’t even want to deal with a woman for business, even though I was buying stuff from them. So there was a huge credibility challenge for me as a woman which I had to overcome. And of course I did. After you overcome the challenges, you become successful; you are able to pay everyone a decent salary. Then your credibility is established. In those days India was a job-starved country so people wanted jobs. If you could give them a job and assure them of paying them, then your credibility was established. Slowly, I began hiring people and developing the company.
PD: State-of-the-art R&D, infrastructure, stringent quality control are the pre-requisites for any company that seeks to extend itself and get products on a global platform. How much of Biocon’s success can be credited to its unwavering focus on quality control, research and development?
KM: When I started Biocon in 1978 and started producing enzymes, it was for the export market. I was doing it in partnership with an Irish company. My whole ethos was about a western quality system. I had to meet the norms of western markets. So I started naturally with a very high focus on quality embedded in my business and a very western philosophy about how you make products, what processes and systems you should follow. I didn’t think about focusing on quality. It came embedded in my business. 10 years into my partnership with the Irish company, they were acquired by Unilever. Unilever being the mega conglomerate it was, I had to up my standards even more. They expected international benchmarks. So I had to conform to those best practices and benchmarks. This helped me in a big way to really come up to those global standards even faster. It has helped me a lot even as I look at my business today.
PD: Biocon’s success has often been credited with how it has turned innovation into a way of life. What is the significance of innovation, particularly in bio pharmaceuticals?
KM: When I started in enzymes, it was a very innovative business. We had to develop enzymes and develop enzymatic process technologies. That was the nature of the business. You had to be innovative. We were constantly looking for problems to solve. We were thinking innovatively all the time – let’s find an unmet need and develop an enzyme solution for it. So as a company, as a group of people, my entire business was research-driven. Whether it was the research we were pursuing, whether it was the manufacturing technologies we were developing, we had to do it in a way that was based on innovation. There was nothing to follow unlike in other industries. I couldn’t copy anything. I had to do my thing. And that was very good because it set in a culture of innovation.
Then, when Unilever came into the picture, they were the ones who opened my eyes to the value of intellectual property. Because when they acquired Biocon – the Irish company, they actually came to me and said ‘The most valuable part of the organisation is what you are doing in India. You have developed such technology and so many enzymes, but you don’t realise how much value you’ve created.’ I said no; I don’t, because we’ve just been doing it. They said it’s not just about filing a patent but valuing that patent. They really helped me understand the meaning of intellectual property and its value.
Ever since then, I’ve leveraged a lot of value from IP. When I sold my enzymes business to Novozymes, many years later, the value I got was not for the sale of enzymes. I got a huge multiple because of the IP that I was transferring to them. They were literally buying over my IP. So I think it was a big learning for me. Ever since then we focussed on innovation because we realised that innovation allows you to not only differentiate but it also allows you to create huge enduring value.
PD: Biocon has been the only Indian company to supply biosimilars to western markets. And you spotted it at the right time.
KM: We’ve always been looking for challenging opportunities and areas which most people are risk averse to. Because we are so familiar with innovation, our risk appetite has been very high. We’ve taken those big bets and won.
PD: Regarding affordable healthcare, which is at the core of Biocon’s philosophy, how has Biocon impacted affordable healthcare in India and abroad?
KM: I always believed you have to have a sense of business purpose. And if you can define that sense of purpose, everything falls in line. My sense of business purpose was to provide affordable access to some of these very complex drugs we were developing, which I realised were very expensive and very difficult to manufacture and therefore they were not accessible to most people in our part of the world. It started with insulin. I realised we were the world’s diabetes capital and the people who needed insulin – the human insulin, couldn’t afford it. So they were using animal insulin. I said I’ve got to make a difference. I cannot allow a country like India, with my understanding of technology and my ability to develop insulin techniques, to be beholden to imported insulin which few people can afford. So we leveraged one of our enzyme technologies. Enzyme is a protein and insulin is a protein. I thought, if I can use one of my enzyme technologies to make insulin, I’m sure it will work. So with that idea, I developed a proprietary yeast platform based on Pichia pastoris – a yeast for insulin. So we developed insulin using this yeast system and it worked. We are the only company in the world making insulin using Pichia technology. I think that became a tremendous success story for us and from there I went on to anti-bodies and then I took that risk of developing biosimilars.
Then I said, I don’t want to develop low-cost biosimilars for India alone because we can make a tremendous impact on global healthcare. If we can get into the US and Europe, our products will be considered high quality and we can deliver quality products anywhere in the world. So our mantra became highest quality at the lowest cost.
We’ve impacted millions of lives across the world through our efforts. I’ve always believed making a difference to global healthcare is extremely important. I’ve always said it’s not about a billion dollars. It’s about serving a billion patients. That’s how a blockbuster drug should be defined.
PD: The rise of Biocon from a small shed in Bengaluru to its present day prominence as a global biopharmaceutical company presents a perfect case study of highly successful entrepreneurship. What could aspiring entrepreneurs take away from your success at Biocon?
KM: I believe it’s about a purpose-led entrepreneurial effort. You don’t just start a company for money. Something should drive you. If I think of any idea, I should ask, what is the purpose I’m serving? What is an unmet need I’m serving? Is it exciting? Is it going to fulfill my sense of purpose? These are questions you need to ask yourself. If it is an exciting, purposeful idea, that idea can become very powerful. And that can lead to a significant business opportunity. It is about shaping that idea, enduring with that idea and learning. But it’s not easy to take that idea to the market. It’s also about creating a team of people that buy into that idea. The entrepreneurial journey is a very interesting journey because it’s about taking an idea to market, it’s about getting a buy-in to that idea from a team that really takes ownership of that idea. It’s about enduring, it’s about effort, it’s about perseverance, it’s about taking risks. And it’s not easy. It is about embedded failure. It is about road bumps along the way. It is a very tough and challenging path. But once you get to the first milestone of success, it gives you the confidence to get to the next milestone of success. But every step of the way, an entrepreneurial journey is a risk-taking journey which has got a lot of challenges.
It’s not as easy as everyone thinks it out to be. They only hear about my success story. But I don’t think they see what’s behind it. Even today, you might see me as a very successful person but there are challenges even in my day-to-day running of the company. What’s important is to believe that what you are doing is for a greater good. My business is such that it is for the greater good of society. We are in the healthcare industry that’s saving lives, that gives a deep sense of purpose.
PD: As a prominent industry leader, how do you look at India’s scientific pool? How is Biocon able to draw upon the country’s topmost scientific minds?
KM: I think India has a very rich talent pool of scientists and engineers but I think it’s very raw talent. We need to shape it. The educational curriculae we have created are not empowering these people to the extent they need to. We must have a lot of experimental and project-based learning. In science – it’s about curiosity. We have to ask questions. We have to figure out things for ourselves. It has to be experimental learning. And somehow we have lost track of that. We want to treat it as acquiring knowledge. That’s not the best way of educating yourself. Today I can read a book and can learn a lot from the book, but if I don’t apply what I learn from the book in my everyday life, then it’s of no use. So if it’s just for marks you are studying, then it becomes a meaningless exercise. But if you actually learnt to apply that knowledge in a meaningful value-added way, then it’s good education.
That’s why I think the US tops it. Because they actually help you think your way out of things. It’s a very experimental, problem-solving way of learning and it throws problems at you to figure it out. That’s what we should do here.
At Biocon too, my business style is problem solving. I keep throwing problems at my colleagues and say solve it. When you solve it, you become confident and you will develop a much stronger organisation. I’ve always believed in experimental learning, problem solving and delegation of problems so people can learn to solve those problems and you don’t have to always be the one who solves the problems for others. It is about critical thinking, it’s about judgement calls, it’s about taking the right decisions and it’s about taking risks and making judgement calls on those risks. That’s what leadership is about.
PD: You’ve shown so much of compassion for the underprivileged, and the need for better education, healthcare and civic facilities. You’ve set up hospitals, especially in rural India. How has your Foundation been impacted by your philosophy of compassionate capitalism?
KM: At the company level, we are very humanitarian and led by the belief that patients come first and profits will follow. That is embedded in the Biocon Foundation. We believe we must give back to our community. Then at a personal philanthropic level too, I believe strongly in helping those that have been less fortunate. I know how tough it is for someone who is marginalised to be included in the mainstream. I know how tough it is for people who come from very poor backgrounds, just to gain acceptance or have access to good education or good jobs. I know it is a very unfair world. And I too have been through a lot of that bias myself. When I was trying to start Biocon, I was not exactly a wealthy person. I was poor in my own way. And I had to fight for my credibility. I had to plead with the bankers to back me. I was not even considered loan-worthy. So I know how tough it is.
Coming from that background, I know the biggest power I had in my hand was my education. It was my biggest strength. But how many others have that? When you come from a basic education, from a poor family, with a dream and an ambition to do something bigger and you don’t have that opportunity, I know how tough it is. We need to lend a helping hand to many of these people. At Biocon we educate the children of all our employees throughout school. It’s capped at a certain level but we pay for all the children up to college. Because I really believe that education is so important to break that taboo and that barrier. I’ve educated all my staff’s children and they are all doing so well. I get so impressed when I see that my cook’s son has got a fantastic job at an insurance company in Dubai. His wife is a Biotech person who’s got a good job in the company, it makes me happy. I helped my cleaning lady’s daughter finish computer science, and she’s got a great job at one of the IT companies. Her son too got a job in an IT company. When I see such things happen, I know the next generation will not do the jobs that their parents are doing today. And that’s going to change society. I just think we have to give back to our community because they supported us when we needed them.
PD: The pandemic has caused unprecedented upheaval in global healthcare. What role do you envisage for global corporations like yours in healthcare challenges in these times?
KM: We have been doing a lot. In the group we have a company Syngene, which have been offering RT-PCR tests. Since we were doing RT-PCR work in other areas, we got our centre certified and are supporting the Karnataka government. We decided to do it as part of our CSR. We are the largest private sector diagnostic company which has given the largest number of tests for the Karnataka government. Since Syngene also has capabilities in antibodies and immune-related work, they’ve been supporting vaccine companies, they’ve been developing antibody tests which we have licensed to a company.
Biocon itself had a very important drug which it repurposed to save patients who in COVID were going through a cytokine release syndrome which was killing people. Our drug saves lives. We’ve given thousands of these doses to patients and actually saved lives. Then we’ve also licensed Remdesivir and have started making that as well.
We’ve completed the trials for Itolizumab. We were supposed to do phase 4 studies with 300 patients. The study is nearing completion. We’ve already done an interim data analysis of 150 patients. We have to wait for 30 days after the treatment to followup on the patients. That will take us into July before we get all the data. But on 150 patients we’ve completed all the data and it’s good. It shows it’s helping to save lives. That’s why we can’t meet the demand right now. It’s a unique drug and works in a unique way. It is really helping patients. I’ve got thank-you letters from so many patients and families.
So between therapeutics, testing and support for vaccine companies, I think we have done a lot and will continue to do a lot in the fight against COVID.
PD: The variants of the COVID-19 virus have thrown up so many new challenges, what in your view is the best strategy to deal with them?
KM: I believe that there is cross-reactivity for any vaccine. It may not prevent infection but it will prevent serious disease. I’ve seen that in 99.9 per cent of the people who’ve taken the vaccine – even one shot, if they may need to go to the hospital, they’ve recovered and come back. If they’ve had two shots, generally they have mild disease. I’ve heard of one or two people who have unfortunately done very badly despite having one or two shots. But that’s very rare. I think most people who’ve had one or two shots have done very well. They may have mild cases and have recovered.
So I would say we have to vaccinate our way out of this second wave. We have to vaccinate as fast as we can. Even getting one shot in people’s arm is good enough. It will start protecting people. That’s why we need to ramp up our vaccine base.
PD: How do you balance your work and family life?
KM: It’s surreal. I don’t enjoy what I’m doing right now. My work takes a lot of time and I work till almost 11 at night. And it’s not easy. Your life is very monotonous. You can’t do anything. We are in lockdown. There’s no way I can go out.
Even a few months ago, I used to go out of town; I used to go to Coorg and spend a weekend with my friends, I’ve been to Kabini a couple of times to see wildlife. I went to Goa once. But now you can’t do all that. So it’s a very difficult time for everyone. We are all cooped up; we can’t meet each other.
Fortunately, at least I have my mom and my husband staying with me. So it’s great. But I would love to meet up with friends, I’d love to go out to dinner. I’m a very social person and I can’t do any of that.
PD: Looking back at your journey from a first generation entrepreneur to a global business leader, what does the future hold for you?
KM: When I look back on my entrepreneurial journey, I say I was lucky and fortunate and blessed in many ways to be given these opportunities to build this kind of organisation. The path ahead is being driven by this sense of purpose and I hope I have the energy to continue with what I’ve started. And I’d really like to leave behind this legacy of a company which was a purpose-led company that made a difference in patient lives. That’s what I want to be remembered for. And that I was a very humanitarian person and very focussed on the right set of values whilst building a business.
I think today, the problem is that investors have instilled a sense of greed in companies. I’m really disturbed by that. I think investors ought to invest in companies that have a sense of purpose, rather than just look at profit and loss. We keep talking of ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance), but I don’t think investors are bothered about ESG. They just like to see whether you are saying the right things.
Whether you are doing the right things – that’s different. They never look into that. Anyone with a glossy sustainability report which sounds great, is something that people accept on face value.
But if you actually dig deeper into it, are they really doing all that they say? That’s the question. And if you are not doing all that you are saying then it’s an empty ESG report or an empty sustainability report. I really believe there are many companies who are very purpose driven and they are doing a lot. It’s not just about green energy. It’s about how fair you are to your employees. How much you invest in creating opportunities for your employees. How inclusive you are. How you look at women and diversity and things like that. And does your business reflect these values you are talking about?
Look at some vaccine companies today who have all been funded by public money. And yet they are bragging about the profits they are going to make, not bothering about the developing world. Profiteering from a pandemic when the world is collapsing is not something to be proud of. Companies driven by purpose need to be admired, not those driven by profit motives.