Book Review: Science of an Entrepreneur – by Karan Avtar Singh

Why Kiran Mazumdar Shaw? That is the question I asked myself when I saw this book. This biography is a recounting of very exciting times: An inflection point in Indian life sciences and enterprise. Kiran is one of the few persons who have combined excellence in enterprise and bioscience to become a leader in this sector. The book is not, strictly speaking, a biography; because it interweaves the stories of Biocon, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw’s personal life and India’s science sector as they rode the wave of the opening up of India’s economy over the last 25 years.

The author’s deep understanding of science as well as of business and enterprise has helped in creating an engaging and simple narrative of an otherwise complex scheme. She skilfully navigates cell biology, biochemistry, medicine, finance, banking and corporate mergers and acquisitions without avoiding technical details and yet retains the excitement of innovation, experimentation, courage and foresight that emerge as the hallmarks of Kiran’s life and character.

There are three reasons why we should read this book. First, the style is neither journalistic nor pedantic, the author combines scientific discourse and corporate drama into an engaging narrative. Second, the subject matter which extends well beyond the life of Kiran to encompass the development of the biotechnology industry in India is of immense interest. Third, the numerous insights scattered liberally across this book merge to make a coherent tapestry of the lives of many eminent Indians in this field who chose to work in India to promote research and development in the life sciences. If anything, Kiran’s story is of an entrepreneur and a missionary who attracted the best minds in biotechnology to India and to Biocon with immense foresight and persistence. As they say, luck favours the brave.

The author unfolds several aspects of the title of her book Myth Breaker: Kiran is not only a pioneering woman scientist and entrepreneur in India, she is also instrumental in breaking the myth of India being unsuitable for cutting-edge research, development and production.

Seema Singh highlights how Kiran was supported by her family, friends and colleagues. Beginning with this base of trust and faith, Kiran undertook multiple translational tasks. She first built an enterprise that bridged Ireland and India, then she filled several voids that existed in translating research into a viable product, and even transported people and ideas from developed countries to India. Kiran emerges as an achiever who saw opportunities when others did not and who had the courage to risk everything to pursue such opportunities.

An important task of the biographer is to analyse events and trends to discover their underlying causes and thereby to develop a portrait of the subject’s character as it evolves over a lifetime. This process of discovery and analysis distinguishes a biography from a story. In this context, one is reminded of Irving Stone’s biography of the painter Vincent Van Gogh, titled The Agony and the Ecstasy, which was filmed as the movie Lust for Life by Vincente Minelli with Kirk Douglas playing the role of Van Gogh, the manic-depressive genius who produced some of the greatest paintings of the modern era. However, this first biography by the author lacks those personal insights that arise only as a result of painstaking research into the life of the subject.

The book contains many insightful vignettes about friends and colleagues of Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, but it stops short of sketching a detailed and nuanced personal pen picture that a reader of a biography is looking for. What made Kiran take those crucial decisions that turned out to be life-changing events? How was she influenced by those closest to her and how did she influence them?

These most important and most personal questions are left unanswered. Perhaps, this is a fault one can find with most biographies of a living person for obvious reasons. There is a genuine need to protect privacy, and a felt need amongst those interviewed to preserve their private thoughts for themselves. The biographer’s failure to create the persona of the subject in full detail leads to a disconnect between the plot as its unfolds and its heroine. Whereas, the plot is fully choreographed and explains the bubbling energy of the biotech sector in India, Kiran’s pivotal role in these developments emerges only as a subtext. Surely, a more compelling way to tell this fairy tale of heady growth and rapid developments in life sciences in India would have been to place Kiran firmly in the limelight and show how events unfolded around the prima donna of India’s biotech drama. The story of her evolution definitely deserved centrestage in this book.

The book does a great job in describing the evolution of Biocon itself, especially, the pivot from opportunism to strategy when it had grown to a certain size and faced existential issues. To quote Kiran, ‘It’s all right to be opportunistic when you are building your business but when you reach a level of critical mass, you have to be strategic.’ Biocon had become the world’s largest producer of Pichia-based recombinant products, it was also a leading producer of insulin biosimilars, like Insugen, and so many companies sought partnerships with Biocon. One such partnership with Pfizer got off to a great start in October 2010 but then fizzled out.

Kiran emerges as a persevering and patient entrepreneur who diligently pursues the best talent over a period of time, and offers them a workplace built on trust, recognition and generosity. As a result, many of the best brains in the life sciences end up working for Biocon where they graduated from academics and research to translation and enterprise by taking the ‘plunge’ into risky business situations.

As Biocon grew, often standing on the shoulders of giants, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw evolved from a passionate scientist and entrepreneur to a mentor and guiding force in India’s biotech revolution. It is this central plot that is so well documented in this biography. For that inspiring tale alone, it is well worth reading.

This was first published in The Tribune on July 3rd, 2016