You cannot compromise on your values, & ethics, as that is what builds a company
We are developing affordable innovative solutions which have a lot of local relevance but a huge global impact
Though she calls herself an accidental entrepreneur, Kiran’s drive to create a brand for India and work towards bringing down the cost of critical drugs has led Biocon to afford its place in the global bio-pharma industry. Dr. Pritam Singh and Dr. Asha Bhandarker speak to the lady herself to learn more about Biocon, its journey, and the crucial value system that has made the dream a reality
PS: How would Kiran Mazumdar Shaw describe Kiran Mazumdar Shaw?
KM: I am very impatient, impulsive, proactive and often act in haste. If something bothers me, I was likely to be reactive and make a decision immediately, and take a corrective action. I am also the type who apologizes very fast if I know I am wrong. I am likely to be very demanding on the spur of the moment if I see something is not being done the right way. If I see somebody not wearing a helmet and climbing up the scaffolding, I will yell at the person and make sure the person comes down. Maybe I should not be so instantaneous in my respond to such situations. But I believe that when you give instant judgment, very often people realize what they have done wrong. So, I have a certain style, which I think people have come to accept.
PS: Does Kiran Mazumdar talk with Kiran Mazumdar?
KM: Of course. I introspect a lot and keep asking myself questions on what is right and wrong. Biocon stands for very high level of values and ethics, which I think is extremely important. That is why non-ethical practices bother me. I am a honest person and I treasure honesty in others. I like straight talking, if you want to say something to me, say it in front of me. Very often, people come up to me to tell me, Kiran I am really concerned about such and such thing, but please do not quote me. And I say that I am going to quote you, because if it is such a serious issue, I need somebody to speak up. You cannot compromise on your principles, values, and ethics, because that is what builds a company.
PS: When younger, were you a dreamer or a visionary?
KM: I would not call myself either. I was just driven by a sense of purpose and I took on the challenge. I was driven by a spirit of challenge to create an environment where scientists produce something really useful. I also wanted to prove to people that women make just as good entrepreneurs, managers or leaders, as men.
PS: Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?
KM: I am an accidental entrepreneur. I never planned to start a company or become an entrepreneur. I was quite career-minded and wanted to pursue a career in brewing because that is what I studied, and when I found it difficult to get a job of my choice, an unexpected opportunity came my way. An Irish entrepreneur said he wanted to start a biotech enzyme-based company in India and wanted a partner. He thought I would be an ideal partner. I was very reluctant to take up the offer at first because I felt I was not cut out for business and knew that being a woman in India, it was not ideal to become a businessperson.
PS: How did Biocon take shape?
KM: My Irish counterpart somehow convinced me that I had all the traits of an entrepreneur. So with that in mind, I set up Biocon, literally as an experimental kind of company. I did not know if it was going to work out but slowly as I got involved in the business I found there were some interesting and exciting challenges.
PS: How was the journey starting a business in a completely new territory, at a time when India has not heard much of biotechnology?
KM: When I started Biocon, it was a virgin territory and no one had heard of biotechnology. It was good for someone like me who is an experimental and accidental entrepreneur. I had the freedom to create our own business model. We began with making Pepin which was a plant enzyme from papaya, but Pepin was a low technology program and I wanted to go beyond that. I decided to create a very strong research engine as an integral part of the business. Developing novel enzymes, microbial enzymes for various industrial applications excited me. My Irish partner agreed and we put together a R&D division, the first ever in India. Through this we created exciting opportunities for scientists in India, and they would not have to go abroad.
The R&D focus made the market exciting for women in India as well. But to scale up technology I needed investment but nobody wanted to support me as most funding agencies were uncomfortable about home grown technologies.
AB: How were you able to convince the investors?
KM: Mr. Narayanan Vaghul of ICICI Bank understood what I was trying to do and he said, forget about the others, I will back you. He agreed to help on the condition that we will allow them as a venture fund to invest in the company. I was able to scale up the technology, and with luck ICICI had a great exit, because within a year of taking this investment from ICICI, Unilever took over my Irish partners. Unilever decided they did not want to have a VC, so they made ICICI an offer four times of what they had invested and took their shareholdings.
AB: What fuels you passion for Biocon?
KM: I want to build this brand for India. I want to make Biocon a brand which India can be proud of. Infosys, Wipro and TCS have built the IT sector which has raised India’s stature. Biocon is in the product development sector. If we want to be taken seriously, we have to bring out novel products. When we develop blockbuster novel products and the world sits up and takes us seriously, then I would probably sleep peacefully.
PS: What is your business model?
KM: Our business model centers on our strategy to create affordable innovation – that is our big advantage. We are developing affordable innovative solutions which have a lot of local relevance but a huge global impact. We developed insulin because we realized that India has a huge diabetic burden and the cost of insulin was priced very high by the multinationals. Biocon has been able to drop the prices, and today all diabetics can get the same product at a quarter of what they paid say 10 years ago. Now we are trying to come up with the world’s first oral insulin tablet which will be a game changer. I do not think anybody in the world can come up with oral insulin except us because there are huge cost challenges in bringing oral insulin to the world markets. We can address those challenges because we are based in India.
AB: Who were your role models in your younger days?
KM: I have had different types of role models. As a scientist, Rajiv Gandhi tried to bring about a lot of change and reforms in science and technology, and brought in some very important people, like Sam Pitroda and Raghunath Anant Mashelkar. To that effect, I liked Rajiv Gandhi because he brought in that change at a time when we needed to change. I consider Mr. Narayanan Vaghul my mentor, because he gave me a huge amount of support and confidence, and understood my business model. Another person who I have a lot of admiration for is Dr. Devi Prasad Shetty. He is an amazing man and is changing the whole healthcare model in this country - trying to develop an affordable healthcare model. Dr. Raj Bhan, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, is another brilliant visionary and Kapil Sibal, a bright personality who really knows the main issues of India.
I was also very close to my father and learnt the essence of ethics and principles from him. He imbibed in me the belief that anything you achieve, if it is done without a sense of honesty and a sense of integrity, is worth nothing. I read a lot and was really struck by Jack Welch’s management style and the concept of boundary less management.
PS: Have you achieved your dream yet?
KM: I have miles to go. I have reached a very interesting milestone in my journey, but to me it is only the beginning of the path that lay ahead. Until I really get those products into the market as game changing products, I do not think I can say I am done yet.
AB: How do you renew yourself?
KM: I network a lot, attend conferences, and meet different types of people. Apart from my business I engage in civic issues. I do a lot of work with the Government of Karnataka, both for the biotech sector as well as for the city of Bangalore. I interact with artists because of my passion in the area. I try to support art and culture as much as science because I feel both have a creative core in them. I like to keep myself engaged through different aspects in life. I feel if you are too homogeneous in the way you live your life, you miss out on a lot of things.
Dr. Pritam Singh
is Professor of Eminence at MDI, Gurgaon and former Director of MDI, Gurgaon and IIM Lucknow. He has been awarded the Padma Shri for his outstanding contribution in the field of Education.
Dr. Asha Bhandarker
is Raman Munjal Hero Honda Chair Professor of Leadership Studies at Management Development Institute, Gurgaon.