Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw: Common Sense, Foolish Courage, and the Reformation of Health Care

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw: Common Sense, Foolish Courage, and the Reformation of Health Care

Film transcript

Transcription from video completed in December 2012, with interviews conducted in October and November 2012. Learn more about Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and additional resources connected to the film.



I think it’s very important to keep evolving, and I think, uh, when you have that kind of a mindset, then reinventing yourself or reinventing the business is a natural part of that process.

You have to keep challenging the status quo.



This is the story of Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, tradition side-stepper, one-time beer brewer, and India’s greatest health-care hope.


Chapter 1. Common Sense, Foolish Courage, and the Reformation of Health Care



Childhood photo of Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw

I grew up in Bangalore in South India. I had a very charmed childhood—grew up in a very comfortable environment.

Bangalore was a lovely city. It was called the garden city of India. It’s a great place to grow up because, you know, it was cosmopolitan—a very modern city in India because it was also the science capital of India. In Bangalore we had the famous Indian Institute of Science and the National Aeronautical Laboratory, and there was a science museum, which we used to frequent quite a lot. So as kids we grew up, you know, loving science. And I’m really glad I grew up in Bangalore.


Chapter 2. Brewery Roots


Kiran’s father, Rasendra Mazumdar, was the brewmaster at United Breweries, India’s largest. Her family lived in the brewery’s staff compound, and Rasendra’s daily routine was a big part of the family’s life.

Kiran and her brothers grew up loving the sights and smells of a brewery.



You know, we used to play hide and seek in the cellars. We used to go and accompany my father when he used to, what they call, uh, take the mash in the mornings at the crack of dawn.

You went into the mash tun, and it has this wonderful aroma of malted barley, and, you know, it’s a fabulous aroma. And then when you went into the wort, or what they call the kettle, you could have this hoppy aroma when they used to boil the wort with hops to give it that bitter flavor. And then, of course, when you went into the fermentation cellars, you could smell the yeast fermenting away. So, you know, brewing is a very fascinating, uh, technology.

You know, my father was a man way ahead of his time. He was a very, you know, liberated man, if I may say so. He really believed that he must bring up his sons and his daughter no differently, and he kept telling me, he said, “You know, you must look at life the same way your brothers do. Don’t think that you have to look at it differently just because you are my daughter or just because you’re a girl. And this society has to learn and respect women for what they are and what they can do, and unfortunately, uh, they don’t.”

And I think my father was very troubled with that. He wanted his daughter to grow up not perceiving this difference. My whole attitude to society and life in general was very different thanks to him.

My mother was, you know, very, very supportive of everything my father wanted me to do. She always confesses secretly, “I wanted you to be a little more traditional, but your father wouldn’t let you be that way.”



Kiran attended a private high school and later graduated from Bangalore University with a double major in biology and zoology with dreams of becoming a doctor. Her early career hopes were thwarted when she didn’t pass a scholarship test for medical school.

Without a plan B in place, Kiran desperately sought other career options . . . exactly when her father suggested she follow his steps and become a brewmaster.



And I kind of thought that quite, uh, odd. I found it discomforting as a girl to sort of even look at pursuing a career in brewing.

But my father said to me, he says, “Why do you have that kind of perspective about brewing? Because brewing is the oldest biotechnology known to man. So, you know . . . I think you should look at it as a science. I think you should look at it as a fermentation science.”



At 21 years of age Kiran packed her bags and left home for the first time to attend the brewing program at Ballerat University in Australia, where her father sent many of his young brewers.



Actually that was quite a defining time in my life, I would say, because, you know, I learned to fend for myself not only as a young woman in an all-male class but also as, uh, someone who was pursuing a very, very different vocation which no woman would think of pursuing.

I certainly got my spunk from my Australian days (smiles). I learned to drink with the boys. I learned to, you know, do well at class. I know I used to top my projects all the time so that gave me a terrific sense of success and achievement and confidence, I would say, more than anything else. So I came back very, very self-assured.



Despite her confidence—and her certification as a master brewer from Ballarat—Kiran faced an uphill battle trying to convince leaders in the brewing industry to take her seriously as a brewmaster.



What they basically said to me was, “Look, it’s great to have you as a consultant; we can possibly give you a job, uh, managing a laboratory, but as a brewmaster managing our operations? No way.”

So that was the first rude shock I got when I, you know, came back to India. That was, uh, when the penny dropped, so to speak, and I realized that it wasn’t going to be easy to find a job as a brewmaster in India.

I was quite rebellious at that time. I was trying to do something, uh, to change society’s attitude to women. I finally gave up because there came a point in time when I said, “Okay, I’m going to forget about getting a job in this country. I’m going to try and find a job outside.”



Anticipating a smaller gender gap in Europe, Kiran set her sights on a brewing career in Scotland and planned to move there to carry on the family business—until, that is, she had a chance encounter with entrepreneur Leslie Auchincloss, founder of Irish enzyme maker Biocon Biochemicals.



So one of the enzymes he was very keen to manufacture was a plant-based enzyme from papaya. There were a number of papaya cultivations in India, and he felt that India was the right place to actually produce this enzyme.

So he had, you know, visited India just to see whether he could set up a small manufacturing operation in India.



Auchincloss was an ambitious businessman and quickly made Kiran a proposal: a joint venture with his firm to create industrial enzymes for makers of beer, food, and textiles around the world. The project involved growing microbes in large vats under precise temperatures and pressures—a process Kiran was quite familiar with.



Well, you know, brewing is a very enzymatic process. So from that point of view I kind of almost consoled myself that I was still very linked to my original brewing background.


Chapter 3. From Papayas to Pharmaceuticals



I had no role models really; I mean I have to be very honest. When I was starting off on my own, I was doing something quite pathbreaking. I couldn’t look or turn to anybody at that stage.

I realized I was doing it alone. I realized I was doing something very different, and I just managed to do things with a lot of common sense, with a lot of determination and a lot of foolish courage, I might add. (smiles)



Undaunted by Indian bureaucracy, Kiran secured all the required permits and set up shop in her garage.

Biocon India was incorporated in 1978. She had a company name, a mission statement, and an initial investment of $1,200.

What she didn’t have—yet—were employees.



I was swamped with applications; so I had a great time, you know, short listing and, you know, calling people for interviews.

You know, actually I cheated a bit because I said, you know, the managing director of a multinational company is looking for secretarial help or a multinational company is looking for an accountant. It wasn’t lies, but it was, uh, white lies, I would say.

They would arrive at my garage and, uh, be very disappointed, and then they would take one look at me and assume I was the secretary. And they’d say, “Well, we have an appointment with the managing director,” and I would say, “Yes, that’s me. What can I do for you? And let’s get the interview started.” And I realized, it was a reverse interview. It wasn’t me interviewing them, but it was them interviewing me about job security and how secure they would be working for a woman—and working for a company headed by a woman.

So I realized that even then I couldn’t get people to join me.



Despite this pervasive mindset, Kiran stayed focused on building the company, taking one careful step at a time.



I ended up hiring two very brave, sort of about-to-retire car mechanics.

I rented out a small industrial shed, and we started developing the process and I started manufacturing the product—in a year’s time.



Kiran and her two former car-mechanic employees began making an enzyme from papayas.



This was a plant enzyme called papain, which was extracted from the papaya fruit from the latex. So basically what you did was you basically incised the papaya fruit and latex would flow out. And the latex would be collected, and this latex was very, very rich in a proteolytic enzyme, an enzyme that breaks down proteins.

And then you would have to collect this latex, purify the enzyme, uh, through a very elaborate process, and then that was the product we would then sell as a food enzyme.



After a successful first year Kiran began to dream about a bigger future for her company: making microbial enzymes in addition to plant enzymes and moving out of the garage.



I was brave enough to, uh, invest all that I had saved in the first year and buy this property.

It was a 20-acre property; so it was a pretty large property. Everyone looked at me and said, “What on earth are you doing buying such a big piece of land? You’ll hardly be able to use half an acre.” I said, “Yeah, that’s true, but let me figure it out. It’s going so cheap that I should buy it. Let’s hope that, you know, one day I use up all those 20 acres. So let me think ahead and let me have that kind of vision.”

Today not only have we used every single bit of that, uh, property, but of course we now spilled over into a 100-acre property, which is the second phase, and then we’re putting up another large facility in Malaysia, which occupies another 50 acres.



Kiran has never been to business school and attributes a “common-sense approach” to Biocon’s success.

In 1989 Kiran became the sole owner of the company. She then refocused the business, and Biocon expanded from producing enzymes to creating biosimilars—the biotech equivalent of generic drugs. Today Biocon occupies a 90-acre campus to accommodate 5,000 employees. It is India’s largest biotech company and Asia’s biggest producer of insulin.

Kiran works a few doors down from her husband, John Shaw, who became Biocon’s vice chairman in 2001.

In addition to generic drugs Biocon has expanded its product line to develop its own pharmaceuticals—a risky and expensive venture, though one with considerable humanitarian and business advantages.

Biocon is in trials on a cancer-treatment drug and has also invested much into creating a revolutionary class of insulin: one that can be taken orally.



So we decided, hey, why don’t we try and make a go of this challenge? It’s, it’s, uh, the holy grail.

It’s a huge problem in India. Diabetes is one of the largest disease burdens that we have in India. In fact it’s a huge global, uh, challenge. And I said, if we out of India can do something like this, it would really, uh, you know leapfrog us into a different league.


Chapter 4. A Role Model for Billions



Kiran has worked hard to attract and retain a large pool of talented scientists, and her efforts are helping to make India a leader in biotechnology.

Biocon now operates in 75 countries and boasts global sales of $712 million.



You know, when I was growing up, I was very, you know, we grew up being very apologetic about India.

I remember when I started Biocon in 1978, I didn’t even have a telephone; everything was so primitive. Today’s India is very different. Things have changed drastically.

Biocon itself has close to 3,000 chemists who are into discovery research, who are into development research, doing some wonderfully innovative work in the organization. And for me as a company out of India, I would love to see one of our drugs really make a huge difference to patients all over the world.

Today most Indians, uh, especially those that live at the fringes of the economy, have virtually no access to decent health care. And I do hope as a company we’re also able, uh, to make a difference to this whole debate on access and affordability. Because I think the world has to care for every patient that needs a drug.



Her roots in science and her compassion for others have made Kiran a vital force in India.

She has spent $15 million to create the 1,400-bed Mazumdar-Shaw Cancer Center in Bangalore. She also founded a community-based health operation that serves 50,000 patients within a 10-mile radius from Biocon’s headquarters. Biocon Foundation programs donate millions to support health-insurance coverage for over 100,000 Indian villagers.



You know, when I was growing up, I really wanted to be a doctor, and, uh, when I couldn’t make it to medical college, I was so dejected.

But it’s interesting that, you know, my life, uh, has brought me back to medicine, uh, not as a doctor but as a researcher and somebody in science. So I do now interact very closely with doctors in the medical community. I guess it’s that kind of a full circle that’s been completed.



Kiran has become a key player in the conversation around national health care. Her “foolish courage” has brought her far in the world, although she is never far from her brewery roots and the fundamentals of science.



India has always, uh, respected and focused on chemistry in a big way. You know, Biocon itself has one of the largest populations of chemists in the country.

Ultimately it’s all about chemicals and, uh, atoms, and the whole thing finally boils down to chemistry. Without chemistry and biochemistry, you know, you wouldn’t have life.



Kiran has been featured in Time’s 100 Most Influential People, Forbes’s World’s 100 Most Powerful Women, and Financial Times’ Top 50 Women in Business.

In 2007 Biocon was ranked the 7th largest biotech employer in the world by Med Ad News, a leading U.S. trade publication.

In addition to developing an oral insulin, Biocon’s research department is pioneering treatments for rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.

Despite her years in the family business, Kiran prefers wine to beer.

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