This article has been published in association with Underwriters Laboratories.
As a young girl, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw wanted to become a doctor. But when she was unsuccessful in securing a seat at any of the medical colleges she had applied for she turned to pursue a career in brewing science which uses biotechnology. Dr Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, who calls herself an ‘accidental entrepreneur’, is the founder of India’s first biotechnology enterprise, Biocon, which is now a leading global biopharmaceutical company.
A pioneer of the biotechnology industry in India, Kiran’s journey began in the late 1970s, in a garage in Bengaluru. With a strong sense of purpose to make a difference, and her grit and determination to buck the trend of Indian women running a corporation, Dr Kiran has shaped Biocon into a Group of Companies which are science-led and innovation-driven. These companies are engaged in serving millions of patients across the globe by enabling affordable access to complex, life-saving biotherapeutics and providing cutting-edge research services to leading global life sciences companies.
From brewing to biotechnology
Born in 1953 in Bengaluru, Kiran completed her bachelor’s in Zoology (Honours) from Bangalore University and a post-graduate diploma in Malting and Brewing from Ballarat Institute of Advanced Education, Australia.
“Fermentation science was a subject that had many applications in different fields and my father encouraged me to pursue it. It’s about fermenting various kinds of grains using yeast and then making different kinds of beers from it. It was a very unconventional thing for a girl to do. I was all set to pursue a brewing career anywhere in the world when an accidental encounter with an Irish biotech entrepreneur changed my fate,” Kiran reminisced in a podcast.
It was a period when she hit the gender barrier where people didn’t want to hire a woman as a brewer. This pushed her into starting a biotech company with the Irish entrepreneur. “Just because I wasn’t that successful in getting a brewing job, I thought, why not try this out? I even explained to my Irish partner that I don’t have any business knowledge or money to invest. Moreover, I’m a woman, with whom it is very difficult in a country like India to run a business. But he encouraged me to pursue an entrepreneurial journey that landed here,” says Kiran.
However, business was not a lap of ease for Kiran. There were situations when she was gravely discriminated against because of her gender. Access to capital and recruitment were huge tasks because there were issues of credibility. Banks didn’t give her loans and people didn’t show interest to work under her, all because she was a woman and biotech was not a popular field at that time.
Overcoming all odds, Biocon became the first Indian company to manufacture and export bio-enzymes globally. It is also a transnational corporation, leveraging research and development as well as innovation to increase affordable access to highly complex biopharmaceuticals like insulins and antibodies for the benefit of patients globally. It inspires a whole new generation of scientists and engineers to join Biocon to develop, manufacture and distribute affordable drugs with the potential to benefit a billion patients.
“India was at the epicentre of diabetes and had alarmingly increasing cases of cancer. Many of the new cancer drugs were biologics. The most important medication for diabetes was insulin and India was importing every one of these drugs at very high prices. I found that most people couldn’t access these medicines because of the price point, which was way beyond their reach. I felt that if I had technology platforms that I could leverage for biopharmaceuticals, then maybe my sort of raison d’être would be how to reduce the prices of these kinds of products, which were so expensive and unaffordable,” shares Kiran who has over four decades of experience in the field of biotechnology.
Her philosophy of equitable access helped thousands of people sustain their life with affordably priced essential medicines. She also does her part in attracting more women to the field and her company supports it. “When I started Biocon in 1978, one of my driving missions was to provide job opportunities for women scientists. I wanted to create a company that was going to be a go-to company for women, who wanted to pursue these scientific careers. And I can tell you that whilst I’ve been successful in certain departments, like R&D and quality and a few of these more scientific aspects of our business. I’m very aware of the fact that Indian society is very protective of its women and they don’t like them to do any and every job, but I think time will come when women themselves will feel very confident to take on any job,” said the 68-year-old entrepreneur.
Kiran has several national and international recognitions to her credit. She was honoured by the Government of India with the Padma Shri (1989), Padma Bhushan (2005) for her relentless works in the field of biotechnology. She has also been conferred with Order of Australia, Australia’s Highest Civilian Honour in 2020; the highest French distinction — Knight of the Legion of Honour in 2016; and the Othmer Gold Award in 2014. She was appointed the first Indian woman to join the board of trustees of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre and was also named in the Forbes list of a hundred most powerful women in the world paving the way for others.
Her success story inspires thousands of women to never lose their spirit and to take risks. She is living proof that girls can do anything if they set their minds to it.
Kiran’s journey was recently shared in a podcast organised by Underwriters Laboratories as part of the Word to the W.I.S.E. ( Women in Science and Engineering) campaign. This podcast series involves interviews with remarkable women like her, who have chosen science and engineering as a career and have dedicated their lives to creating a safer, more secure and sustainable future. Through Word to the W.I.S.E, Underwriters Laboratories hopes to build on a legacy that drives transformative change in pursuit of a safer and more resilient society, by inspiring more young women to a career in the field of STEM.
You can nominate more such women to be a part of the show or send in your questions for future guests on the Word to the WISE podcast, here.