Companies & Industries

From Brewing, an Indian Biotech Is Born


Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw in the early 1970s told her father, a brewmaster at India's United Breweries who helped craft the Kingfisher beer, that she wanted to use her zoology degree to pursue a career in science. He lobbied her to consider beer-making instead. "I said, 'My God, why would I want to do brewing?'" she recalls. "He said, 'Don't look down on brewing. Look at it as a science.'"

It turns out that was good advice. Today the brewing enzyme business Mazumdar-Shaw started in her Bangalore garage in 1978 with 10,000 rupees ($1,200 then) has grown into Biocon, India's largest biotech company and Asia's biggest producer of insulin. Biocon is poised to ramp up competition in the $14 billion global insulin market, which is dominated by Novo Nordisk, Sanofi-Aventis, and Eli Lilly. Demand for insulin is expected to increase 20 percent a year through 2015 as the number of diabetics tops 285 million globally, according to market researcher RNCOS.

In India's biggest drug supply deal so far, Biocon and Pfizer (PFE) in October agreed that the Bangalore-based company will produce insulin for the U.S. drug giant, which abandoned that business more than three years ago after taking a $2.8 billion charge on its Exubera inhalable insulin. Biocon will supply four generic insulin products to be sold initially in emerging markets, including India and Brazil. Later the companies plan to sell Biocon-produced insulin in developed countries, including the U.S. Pfizer paid Biocon $200 million up front and will pay up to $150 million more, contingent on Biocon's passing development and regulatory milestones. "This is a perfect match," says Ranjit Kapadia, vice-president for institutional research at HDFC Securities in Mumbai. "This deal will open up many more avenues for Biocon. Pfizer gets a low-cost manufacturing base, and they just have to market the products."

Profits for Biocon's fiscal third quarter, ended Dec. 31, rose 25 percent, to $22 million, on a 15 percent sales gain. The company's stock soared 52 percent last year. Until now, the Indian company's best-selling drugs have been statins to reduce cholesterol. It also makes drugs for heart disease and cancer, with most of its revenue coming from generics. "Insulin will become their biggest revenue generator after this deal," says Siddhant Khandekar, an analyst at ICICI Direct.

Biocon is also trying to develop an insulin pill that would allow diabetes patients to take insulin orally instead of by injection. The company announced in January, however, that the drug failed in trials to control blood-sugar levels.

Following her father's advice, Mazumdar-Shaw moved to Australia in 1974 and enrolled in what is now the University of Ballarat to study malting and brewing. She was an unlikely student: She didn't drink alcohol before going to Australia and was the diploma program's only woman. Mazumdar-Shaw graduated in 1975 at the top of her class and became India's first female brewmaster. When she came home, however, breweries wouldn't hire her because they feared she couldn't handle the odd shifts and male-dominated unions, she says. So she worked as a consultant to brewers who wouldn't take her on full-time.

Mazumdar-Shaw then met Leslie Auchincloss, founder of Irish enzyme maker Biocon Biochemicals, who asked her to form a joint venture with his firm to sell industrial enzymes to makers of beer, food, and textiles in India. The job involved growing microbes in large vats under precise temperatures and pressures—just like making beer. "Enzymes are produced by fermentation, and most of these enzymes are also used in the brewing industry," Mazumdar-Shaw says.

After incorporating Biocon India in 1978, Mazumdar-Shaw used her garage as an office and a 3,000-square-foot shed nearby as her factory. Her first employee was a car mechanic. "It was like a kitchen-sink operation," she says. "I had a real problem getting people to work for me because I was a woman." The next year, Biocon started exporting enzymes to the U.S. and Europe, and by 1996 it was manufacturing generic medicines. Two years later she and her husband bought back a stake in Biocon held by Unilever, which had gained the holding when it earlier purchased the Irish company that gave Mazumdar-Shaw her start. Today Biocon employs more than 5,300 people. Mazumdar-Shaw, 57, is India's fourth-richest woman, with a net worth of $900 million, according to Forbes magazine.

"We evaluated several companies before concluding that Biocon was the best partner," says David Simmons, president of emerging markets and established products at Pfizer. "Kiran's involvement in the negotiations was critical."

The bottom line: In the wake of its deal with Pfizer, Biocon is well positioned to take advantage of the world's increasing diabetes problem.

Narayan is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Mumbai.

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