Myth Breaker   Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and the Story of Indian Biotech By Seema Singh
Collins Business/Rs 599/324 pages

This well-written biography with its catchy title, gives readers a cogent answer to the question, who is Kiran Mazumdar Shaw,  as well as its corollary, what is Biocon all about. Actually, it leans more towards tracking of the business rather than delving too deeply into the personality traits of its founder but then, the best business biographies do just that.

So, who is Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw? Myth-breaker. Risk-taker. A woman who was not an engineer and who did not come from a business family,  yet started and steadily grew a ground-breaking business.  Initially setting out to be a professional brewmaster, Mazumdar-Shaw faced so much hostility and gender bias that she turned to Plan B: to start a biotech start-up instead,  where she could leverage her fermentation knowledge to produce enzymes and biopharmaceuticals instead of beer. Mazumdar-Shaw`s father Rasendra Mazumdar was India`s first brewmaster and that definitely helped shape her initial interests in brewing. Her mother helped, too; in the early years, when Mazumdar-Shaw was going to coastal towns securing fish maw supplies, in Delhi, her mother Yamini Mazumdar, would head to the fish market near the Jama Masjid once every ten days and buy a few hundred kilos of the fish maws, then ship the stock to her daughter in Bangalore. 

Her mentor and one-time partner in business,  Leslie Auchincloss,  describes Mazumdar-Shaw thusly, after his first meeting with her: a fantastic, enthusiastic, ass-kicking woman who is aggressive, demanding and would make a great partner for Biocon Ireland.  

Pioneer? That`s a given.  Pugnacious? Yes, if the situation calls for it.  Ready to ward off challenges that comes in the form of dirty deeds done by corporate rivals, like the filing of PILs. Ready to take on the Chinese goods wall. Once this businesswoman bought into some idea, concept or project, she moved forward with lightning speed;  witness the setting up of the Mazumdar-Shaw Cancer Centre,  together with the renowned cardiologist Dr Devi Shetty. And in John Shaw, she has a spouse and staunch supporter who is more than willing to stay in the shadows and let all the limelight fall on Kiran. As a finance person, he had some pithy advice to give his wife: be adventurous in your science but be very conservative in your finance. That advice has held good.

So, what exactly is Biocon? A research company that is running a number of programmes to bring new drugs to change the course of the disease. Bit by steady bit, the concern has grown incrementally, added technical and managerial muscle to its manufacturing, started to supply an iron complex, Serratio, then statins, and then, insulin. Today this mid-sized company does novel biologics while earning the margins of speciality generics, even as it harbours ambitions of an innovator company.

Not all roses, though; here are some interesting facts: Biocon took ten years to become the largest Indian insulin brand but still has only 6.5 per cent share in the overall insulin market,  and ten per cent in the represented market.  When Biocon went public in 2004, people were sure  it would pave the way for other biotechnology companies to follow suit. Not a single firm did. It has been a hard climb but if ever anyone was up to the challenge,  it was and continues to be,  Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw.

The book  is a dispassionate collation of Biocon stories,  and introduces to the reader the whole team that pulled its considerable weight and helped Mazumdar-Shaw put her company  on the biotech map.  Author Seema Singh, former bureau chief of Forbes India and a MacArthur grant awardee, said the book took two years to write and involved over 200 interviews. It takes the reader through an interconnected maze involving a feisty woman with a definite vision and the perseverance to stay the long course.

Verily the face of the biotech industry in India now, Mazumdar-Shaw is in her early sixties and still going strong, her business acumen as well as her vision for her enterprise as sharp and clear as it was 37 years ago. Mazumdar-Shaw  is all set to take Biocon’s biopharma business to the next level, with the focus on the new field of immuno-oncology. Which is a good thing considering the TINA factor here. There is no alternative to Mazumdar-Shaw as yet. As GS Krishnan of Novozymes says: ``If today Kiran chooses to say `enough of industry leadership` and steps back, there is nobody to talk to the government on behalf of Indian biotech.``

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