India needs to break out of its colonial mindset and tap into its innovative potential, says Biocon chief Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw

© Courtesy Biocon Ltd

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw is the chair and managing director of Indian biotechnology firm Biocon

‘India is proud to be known as the pharmacy of the world, producing 80% of the world’s generic drugs, but we can’t gloat over that for rest of our lives,’ says Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chair and managing director of Indian biotechnology firm Biocon. ‘We need to leverage the experience and expertise gained from the generics business to begin developing novel drugs.’

But innovation cannot just be conjured on demand, it must be nurtured by creating opportunities that are appropriate for the country. Mazumdar-Shaw considers herself an ‘accidental entrepreneur’. Her journey in biotechnology kicked off after becoming India’s first female brewmaster, when she set up Biocon in a Bangalore garage and built it into a multinational success. Her philosophy has been to differentiate Biocon from other companies, for example by choosing the yeast Pichia pastoris as a host to ferment biotech products, which is harder to culture but higher yielding than the more common Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast or Escherichia coli bacteria. ‘If you have purely technical goals, you will always remain small,’ she says. ‘But if you have commercial goal then you scale up, compelled by your self-interest, which forces you into that cycle of growth.’

India as a society has suffered from a colonial mindset, she adds. ‘Everybody recognises Indians as potentially good scientists and engineers, but as a nation we have neither tapped this potential, nor marketed ourselves as a powerhouse of scientific and technical knowledge.’ She suggests that the country suffers from an external perception that products from India are substandard, poor quality and not original. ‘This is what we need to break, and we are our own worst enemy. We don’t take pride or have confidence in our own work’

Mazumdar-Shaw believes there are pockets of excellence in Indian research, but a lack of cultural support to reach critical mass. She sees too many cases of Indian research failing to find domestic backing, only to be licensed from outside India and come back as foreign products. Part of the problem is the attitude towards intellectual property, she says. ‘We should be encouraging scientists to file patents and treating them as inventors, not merely authors of papers. We have this view that patenting is evil or antisocial – I find it very difficult to understand. If you don’t encourage patenting it means you don’t ascribe value to new knowledge or innovation. And if you don’t do that you can never create an innovation-led business, scientific or research environment. We behave as if knowledge has no value, and that has a cascading effect.’ However, she acknowledges that this view is beginning to change. For example, Gilead has granted broad licenses to make generic versions of its hepatitis C drug Sovaldi (sofosbuvir) for developing nations, in exchange for a royalty on sales. ‘Open licencing for lifesaving drugs is a great concept, it is win-win situation for everyone by protecting markets and serving humanity at the same time.’

India has all the ingredients to develop a world class biotech innovation hub. We just need to scale up our excellence

Create an ecosystem for innovation requires a mix of approaches – identifying and nurturing groups of innovative people, and placing higher value on collaborative research, while working to eliminate isolated silos. ‘Academic leadership should direct people towards collaboration, and be thinking about how we can better connect people working in different disciplines,’ says Mazumdar-Shaw. She wants to encourage more collaboration between technological and basic science institutions, to take advantage of complementary skills. ‘Commercial enterprises in India tend not to be very keen on high-level research, because they are looking for quick returns on their investment.’ Those returns are much more visible for generic drugs than for high-risk drug discovery programmes with much longer term returns – or perhaps no return at all. Government has an important role to play in providing seed funding to take ideas to proof-of-concept. But the big hurdle is persuading venture capitalists with very low appetite for risk to help these small companies scale up.

Building bridges

When it comes to collaboration between industry and academia, Mazumdar-Shaw emphasises the need for natural transitions. ‘I don’t want to force academia–industry partnerships unless industry realises the value,’ she says. ‘It’s about identifying and understanding the roles and functions of academia and industry individually and together.  There is no doubt that industry looks at academia to strengthen its innovation pipeline – and at the moment industry is seen as the destination, rather than the origin, for innovation.’ She takes inspiration from the growing biotech hubs such as Boston–Cambridge, US, and Cambridge–Oxford–London, UK. The Indian government is providing support to form a biotech cluster in Bangalore – now home to around 200 biotech companies.

But to grow, those companies will need skilled workers. Mazumdar-Shaw says that the talent is there, but it needs polishing. She has set up the Biocon Academy in collaboration with the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) in Claremont, US. ‘The KGI develops talent for the US biotech industry, but our academy is not limited to biotech. Rather, we provide training for a broad spectrum of companies.’ In the last two years, the academy has trained over 200 college graduates for positions across a range of industries. ‘India has all the ingredients to develop a world class biotech innovation hub,’ Mazumdar-Shaw concludes. ‘We just need to scale up our excellence.’