Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw

An entrepreneur, businesswoman, and influencer, who launched the first biotech company in India.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Sci-Illustrate Stories.

Featuring artwork by Harsho Mohan and words by Dr. Sumbul J. Khan, Sci-Illustrate Stories. Set in motion by Dr. Radhika Patnala.

Research in life sciences leads to discoveries that not only expand our knowledge but also inspire new applications that can benefit the health and well being of a society. Biotechnology facilitates such a transformation and enables societies to enjoy the fruits of life science discoveries to the fullest. Successful biotechnology applications require a scientific mindset combined with entrepreneurial vision and skill. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw (1953- present) is an embodiment of these qualities and a pioneer, who by starting the first biotechnology company in India brought the tangible benefits of research to the masses.

Kiran successfully combined her training in science with her business acumen, to not just create a company, but craft a vision of Biotech development in India. Her focus on fostering research and development and not just manufacturing, an emphasis on closing the gap between academia and industry, and the drive for innovation in technologies has created a winning combination for the Biotech sector. She has established herself as a thought leader, who has been outspoken in matters of policymaking, gender equity, sustainable growth, and affordable healthcare. She is India’s richest self-made woman with a humanitarian heart and a vision for change, and we cannot help but be deeply influenced and inspired by her.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Executive Chairperson, Biocon Limited and Biocon Biologics Limited, is an entrepreneur and India’s richest self-made businesswoman. (Image courtesy: Wikimedia commons)

Early life

Kiran Mazumdar was born on 23rd March 1953 in Pune, Maharashtra, in a Gujarati family to Rasendra Mazumdar, the head brew master at United Breweries, and Yamini Mazumdar, an entrepreneur. She is the eldest daughter and has two younger brothers, Ravi and Dev. Rasendra had progressive ideas and raised his daughter to have a worldview similar to his son’s. Yamini was always supportive, and enterprising herself as she started her own business at the age of 68. Kiran learnt from her parents that women could be just as independent and inventive as men, which shaped her into the person that she became.

A ‘charmed’ childhood- Kiran with her parents, Rasendra and Yamini Mazumdar. (Image courtesy: yourstory.com)

Having a supportive family and growing up in the garden city Bangalore (now Bengaluru) gave Kiran a ‘charmed’ childhood. Being in Bangalore, the science capital of India, also motivated her to pursue a degree in science. After completing high school from Bishop Cotton Girl’s High School, Kiran joined the Mount Carmel College of Bangalore University and graduated with double major in Zoology and Biology in 1973.

From Brewing to Biotechnology

Following the footsteps of her father to enter the brewing industry, she joined a Master’s in Brewing course from Ballarat College in Australia. It was a non-traditional profession for a woman and she was the only female in her class. She also learnt the basics of fermentation science that would help her later in life. Being in a foreign land made her independent, and excelling in her class despite being different made her a more confident person. However, she met with a rude shock when she retuned to India after her degree in 1975.

She soon realized that becoming a lady ‘brew master’ was a far cry in India, as no one would hire her. For the first time she experienced the drawbacks of her gender. For the next two years she took up managerial and consultant jobs instead, but was disappointed and decided to seek opportunities abroad. It was at this juncture that she met Leslie Auchincloss, the founder of Biocon Biochemicals Limited, an Irish company. He wanted to establish a subsidiary in India for the production of enzymes used in beer, food and textiles industries, and wanted Kiran to be his partner. Indian laws restricted foreigners to own only 30% of a company, which meant Kiran will be the 70% owner. Initially reluctant as she didn’t have much experience in this field, Kiran eventually said yes to the venture, and the rest is history.

Biocon- A garage start-up turning into multinational pharma company

Kiran traveled to Ireland for six months to get trained in the industrial process of enzyme production. Upon her return she started Biocon in 1978 in a rented garage, with an initial budget of just $1200. Biocon’s initial target was to extract and sell ‘Papain’, an enzyme extracted from papaya plant. It was not easy for her to find employees, as people were hesitant to join a firm led by a woman, and it was not easy to find funding, as people doubted the capability of such a young woman with no previous experience. But she remained undeterred, with her first two hires who were retired car mechanics, she started the company.

Humble beginnings- Kiran in a business meeting about papain production (Image courtesy: Biocon)

Within a year her small start up was successful enough to be exporting the enzyme to US and Europe. This was just the jumpstart she needed; she invested in buying 25 acres of land for expanding her company and manufacturing more microbial enzymes. Her experience in brewing, which is an enzyme-based fermentation process, helped her translate her experience to produce enzymes, which requires extensive microbial cultures. By 1987 Kiran had invested heavily on the research and development of fermentation technology to expand enzyme production capabilities.

Kiran at the construction site of the expanded Biocon campus in 1981. (Image courtesy: Biocon)

1998 became a remarkable year in Biocon’s and Kiran’s history, as it was the year Kiran became the sole owner of the company. In the same year Kiran tied the knot with John Shaw, chairman of the Scotland-based textile firm Madura Coats, and came to be known as Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw. John, who was her fiancée at the time, helped Kiran raise the money to buy out Biocon by selling his own assets. John also left his job to join Biocon, and eventually became its vice chairman in 2001.

Kiran with her husband John Shaw (Image courtesy: University of Glasgow)

This was a new phase for Biocon as it expanded into manufacturing biopharmaceuticals and making drugs treatments for diseases, such as diabetes, cancer and autoimmune diseases. This included production of a recombinant Insulin through a novel technology, becoming the third corporation in the world to come up with the product.

Biocon goes public in 2004 - Kiran at the National Stock Exchange in Mumbai marking the launch of Biocon’s IPO, a first for an Indian biotech firm. (Image courtesy: Biocon)

Biocon’s operations have since expanded to multiple countries, and is changing patient lives in more that 120 countries. It has expanded its repertoire from biosimilars, to novel biologics(e.g. Itolizumab), generics, and through its subsidiary Syngene into research services. Today Biocon is India’s largest biotech company, and Asia largest producer of Insulin.

Innovation and affordability in healthcare

Innovation is at the core Kiran’s vision for Biocon. She has therefore invested in research and development to come up with novel products that makes Biocon stand out in the global market also catapulted India’s reputation in biotech on world stage. They have created a novel oral form of Insulin, called Tregopil, which is effective in both Type I and II diabetes and clinical studies are underway in India and U.S. Biocon has also successfully repurposed Itolizumab, sold under brand name ALBUMAb an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat psoriasis, as an anti-Covid drug. Itolizumab has been given emergency authorization for treatment of COVID-19 in India, and Biocon has collaborated with Equillium, a U.S. based biotech, for conducting phase III trials of testing Itolizumab in corona virus patients.

At the heart of everything is a philosophy is affordable innovation that Kiran abides by. She recognizes the power of developing drugs in India, where the low cost of manufacturing keeps the drug prices low, making them much more affordable.

A role model for the business of science

Kiran’s phenomenal achievement is even more remarkable considering she does not have any formal degree in business. But it was her firm grounding in science, her perseverance and in her own words a lot of ‘foolish courage’ that led Biocon in the direction of success.

“ Failing is only temporary, but quitting is permanent. ”

Kiran’s key to success lies in recognizing the unique benefits of Indian context and utilizing it to the fullest. She has also maintained meaningful collaborations with corporations and institutions the world over, to ensure that the work that they do are up to international standards.

Kiran receiving the Padma Bhushan in 2005 from then President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (Image Source: Biocon)

Kiran has won many business and science awards, and is also the recipient of the Padma Shri (1989) and Padma Bhushan (2005) awards from the Government of India. Yet, she has not let all the success get to her head. Kiran and John are both involved in numerous philanthropic activities, and have donated to various organizations. They started the Biocon Foundation in 2004, to fulfill their corporate social responsibility by helping people in rural Karnataka with aid in education, heath and infrastructure. They have also established the Mazumdar-Shaw Cancer Center in Bangalore, which makes cancer treatment more affordable.

Despite facing gender biases herself, she never let her being a woman come in her way, a message that she wants to convey to other aspiring women. Kiran is an icon for the business of science in India and it will not be wrong to say that her name is synonymous with the Indian biotech sector.

Timeline:

1953- Born on 23rd March in Pune, Maharashtra to Yamini Mazumdar and Rasendra Mazumdar

1968- Graduated high school from Bishop Cotton Girls College, Bangalore

1973- B.Sc. from Mount Carmel College, Bangalore University, Bangalore

1975- Postgraduate Diploma, Malting and Brewing, Ballarat Institute of Advanced Education, Melbourne, Australia

1978- Started Biocon in a rented garage in Bangalore

1989- Received Padma Shri Award from the Govt. of India

1998- Acquired sole ownership of Biocon Ltd.

1998- Married John Shaw

2004- Biocon listed on stock market, the first Indian Biotech to issue an IPO

2005- Received Padma Bhushan Award from the Govt. of India

2008- Biocon enters into production of Biosimilars, in collaboration with Mylan

2014- Received the Othmer Gold Medal

References/ further reading:

About the author:

DR. SUMBUL JAWED KHAN

Content Editor, Women In Science, Sci-Illustrate Stories.

Dr. Khan received her Ph. D. in Biological Sciences and Bioengineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, where she studied the role of microenvironment in cancer progression and tumor formation. During her post-doctoral research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Khan investigated the gene regulatory networks that are important for tissue regeneration after damage or wounding. Dr. Khan is committed to science outreach activities, to make scientific research understandable and relatable to the non-scientific community. She believes it is essential to inspire young people to apply scientific methods to tackle the current challenges faced by humanity.

About the artist:

HARSHO MOHAN CHATTORAJ

Contributing Artist, Sci-Illustrate stories

Harsho Mohan Chattoraj is a graphic novelist and illustrator based in Kolkata, India. He’s worked in the comic medium for fifteen years, on individual projects and for clients in India, UK, Australia and the US. Some of his recent graphic novels include ‘ Ghosts of Kingdoms Past’, ‘Destiny Awakes’, ‘Pagla Shaib’s Grave’, ‘Hyderabad Graphic Novel’ and ‘Kolkata Kaleidoscope’. Harsho also has worked as a journalist, visualizer, storyboard artist, voice-over artist and promo producer, but has always been a fan of comics since his first dosage of ‘Asterix’ at the wee age of five.

About this series:

These are stories I wish I knew when I was growing up.

There are the stories of persistence, ingenuity, calibre, scientific achievement against all odds.

These are the stories of Indian women who were the pioneers of Science in India.

These are stories of lives that must be remembered and cherished.

Sci-Illustrate stories is proud to add a new chapter in our WIS series where through the words of the sci-illustrate team, complimented by the artwork of a very talented Indian artist Harsho Mohan Chattoraj, we will be revisiting and highlighting the lives of some incredible Indian women in science.

— Dr. Radhika Patnala, Series Director

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Passion for science and art coming together in beautiful harmony to tell stories that inspire us