Biocon India in transition

Fired by the vision and vitality of its founder, Biocon seeks a major breakthrough in the field of drug discovery and human health.

DATE 2023-11-28 AUTHOR Rasheeda Bhagat

Chairman and CEO of India's largest biotechnology venture, Biocon India Ltd., is Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, a respected entrepreneur in India's male-dominated corporate world. She has steered the company's transition over the years, as she says, "from a mere enzyme company to an integrated biopharmaceutical company with major research initiatives."

Commenting on her company´s growth since its foundation in 1978, she says: "In 1997, we researched a group of cholesterol-reducing pharmaceutical products derived from microbial fermentation," she says. "That was our first foray into biopharmaceuticals, and now we're getting into the really serious business of biologicals."

The first product Biocon is venturing into is human insulin. "And very soon this is going to be followed by a string of other biologicals, such as streptokinase," says Mazumdar-Shaw. "We're also going in for certain novel monoclonal antibodies that will be our real venture into NME (new molecular entity). But in this case I'd like to call it an NBE (new biological entity). Today we are a true biotech company focused on the area of human health care."

Fermentation partner

Biocon's partnership with Alfa Laval India, which Mazumdar-Shaw describes as "our fermentation partner," began in 1989. "We went into enzyme manufacturing and they supplied us with our first plant-scale fermenter," says Mazumdar-Shaw.

"Since then, they've been with us in every project right from the expansion of the first project to the setting up of the largest automated submerged fermentation facility in India. This was completely built and installed for us by Alfa Laval from 1999 to 2000." For Biocon's forthcoming foray into the biological segment, she says Alfa Laval will "continue to provide us solutions for many of our dream projects in the future."

Human insulin

Mazumdar-Shaw says that her ultimate dream is to make a breakthrough drug discovery and develop it all the way to market. She is deeply involved in the human insulin project, and expresses her concern about the increasing rate of diabetes. "In India, where there are an estimated 40 million diabetics, diabetes is growing at an alarming rate," she says. "A recent World Health Organization report estimates 180 million diabetics worldwide, so the human insulin project is very important to us."

Explaining the role and interplay of enzymes in biotech operations, Mazumdar-Shaw says, "The entire human metabolism or any living system metabolizes through a complex interplay of enzymes. Enzymes are nothing but proteins, which are biological or organic catalysts that break down complex molecules into smaller molecules, which are then assimilated by the body in various ways. There are millions of enzymes that conduct very specific tasks, so they are like normal inorganic catalysts. But biological catalysts are doing things on organic molecules. These are produced typically through microbial fermentations."

Biotechnology uses highly specialized methods to produce enzymes, and in these operations quality and purity are crucial. Purity begins in the manufacturing process, because biological processes are prone to contamination, Mazumdar-Shaw says.

"You have to have systems and equipment that ensure sterility and containment. When you're dealing with genetically modified organisms, containment is especially important, and you need hermetically sealed equipment where there is no leakage whatsoever. These are basic aspects of technology."

Integrated solutions

"The challenge at the other end is to purify the product that comes out in its raw form through a number of processes and technology. Selection of those processes, technologies and equipment is vital here, and that is where Alfa Laval has played the role of a partner."

Biocon is today being recognized as a great fermentation company, and the woman who has recently been described by the Economist as "the fermentation queen of India " says that with fermentation being the very basis of biotech production, "Alfa Laval has been a very integral part of our biotechnology."

"We've had a mutual relationship, and in asking for highly specific and customized solutions, we have also helped Alfa Laval to develop many of their technologies. As a result of this close relationship and synergy over the years, there has been a lot of improvement on their side, too. I would say we've had a good, beneficial and symbiotic relationship."

Mazumdar-Shaw says that in providing integrated solutions, simple things "like placements of valves or configuration of the piping, or stirring devices and seal arrangements, can be extremely important in ensuring trouble-free production." In these areas Biocon depends heavily on Alfa Laval.

"The relationship is bound to grow in the future," she adds, "because both companies are on a growth track and have a lot in common. In the biological field, which will be our area of focus, there are many areas where we need to work together in the future, and I look forward to that partnership."

Mazumdar-Shaw's vision for Biocon's future is clear. "It has to endure and grow into a mega-company long after I'm gone. I dream of Biocon as a globally well-known company in the area of human health care with a really solid brand worldwide."