In the 1970s biotechnology jobs were difficult to come by, especially for women. So Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairman and managing director, Biocon, changed the rules of the game and founded her own biotech venture that currently employs 3,500 people (15 per cent of whom are women) and clocks revenues in excess of Rs 1,600 crore.
In an interview with Nandita Datta she talks about biotechnology becoming the new buzzword and what it takes to build a successful career.
What are some of the career opportunities in biotechnology in India today?
Biotechnology is a very diverse field. It offers opportunities in areas of research, marketing or manufacturing. The research that's going in this field today is so varied and inter-disciplinary that students of biology, pharmacology, medicine, engineering and computational science all have interesting roles to play. In the area of manufacturing, we look for chemical and mechanical engineers or microbiologists with expertise in fermentation. Marketing, which involves selling products like enzymes, bio-pharmaceuticals, industrial and agri-biotech products, diagnostics, instrumentation, etc requires knowledge of science and an MBA degree. After all, he or she must understand the products and services being sold.
Is a basic degree in biotech sufficient for a career in this field?
A degree in biotechnology is not imperative to enter this field. Biocon, for example, hires MSc students from life sciences disciplines like biochemistry, molecular biology, microbiology, pharmacology and chemical biology. And it's not like these are for non-R&D roles -- they are very much for our research programme. But for someone who's really interested in research as a career, I would recommend doing a PhD. Apart from the much-needed specialisation, it brings an analytical bent of mind. For non-research functions, a PhD doesn't really help -- learning on the job is much more important.
Which biotech institutes does Biocon visit regularly for its hiring needs?
We go to IITs and pick students from specialised bio-sciences or biotechnology programmes -- usually you can't go wrong with an IIT. Mumbai University's Department of Chemical Technology (UDCT) is another excellent picking ground because of its outstanding quality of education. Anna University is also quite good. Many institutes today produce quality students. We've a wide choice to pick from!
'Biotech seen as the 'in' thing'
What is your perception of the quality of students available in India today?
It's difficult to make a sweeping statement. There are very good institutes and terrible ones. There's a lot of trash going around in the name of biotechnology. Because it's seen as the 'in thing' everyone offers a biotech course. But you have to groom whoever you hire. None are employment-ready. We've found students from reasonably good colleges can be groomed to perform equally well as one from a top-notch institute.
Apart from a good academic record, what other skills are necessary to build a successful biotech career?
You must have an aptitude for learning -- without this you cannot hope to grow in your career. Analytical and problem-solving skills are also necessary as are communication and presentation skills. Communicating in a technical journal is very different from communicating to a non-technical audience and people need to know how that is done. Knowledge sharing is essential to sustain learning and growth team skills are required to contribute productively as a team.
In a biotech firm what is the most sought-after function? What are some of the non-glamorous but equally important functions?
For anybody seeking a career in biotechnology research and marketing seem to be the two most sought-after functions. This is probably because they are the most talked about and in-your-face kind of roles. But you have functions like quality and regulatory that are equally if not more important. But somehow they aren't viewed as high-profile or glamourous. In fact, getting qualified people for these functions is a tough job and, hence, they are in high demand.
'We are a preferred employer in this space'
What is the selection process at Biocon?
For a research role, candidates are grilled extensively on their technical competence. A manufacturing person will be tested on his knowledge of fermentation and other processes. For a marketing role, we look at how self-assured the person is, is he a go-getter and does he have a passion for selling. Marketing people are relatively easier to get compared to R&D and manufacturing. To hire 800-1000 people across various functions we screen/interview at least 10 times that number. We have a stringent process!
Is Biocon an aspirational career path for biotechnology students considering the cutting edge R&D work you're doing?
That's for others to judge! Let me just say we are a preferred employer in this space if one goes by the number of applications we receive every year from various institutes all over the country.
Is it difficult to attract biotech talent, especially at the middle and senior level?
At the junior level, we've been able to find the requisite talent. But for leadership roles we've had to look outside the country. The good news is that there are a lot of Indians with international experience who are now looking to return and work with home-grown companies doing cutting-edge work. And because we enjoy a good branding within the global scientific community we're able to attract good talent. We are now also mentoring and nurturing some of our home-grown talent for leadership roles.
'Being a generalist won't get you anywhere'
Does Biocon invest a lot in its people, even at the junior level?
Yes and it's not about salaries alone. The kind of learning opportunities Biocon offers is unparalled in the industry. Our payback may be longer but in a knowledge-intensive business it's our people who will differentiate us from others. We encourage people to attend workshops and conferences, both in India and overseas, so that their skill sets improve and they can become specialists. We also encourage people to take up PhD programmes -- we have linkages with various universities and institutes that allow our employees to further their academic exposure.
Is Indian biotech largely about low-hanging research fruits rather than core research? Will this impact the talent pool in the long run?
The Indian pharmaceutical sector in general has thrived on generics or me-too products. In the biotech industry, too, most companies are opting for bio-generics. But I wouldn't necessarily knock this off because through generics/bio-generics you can develop critical mass and capabilities that actually help you move forward and take the risks associated with novel research. In Biocon, we have balanced our portfolio between bio-generics and novel research programmes. The talent you require for bio-generics is no way inferior to novel research. But yes, you have to invest far more because you're doing something for the first time. Take for instance our oral insulin molecule -- currently in Phase III clinical trials. We've had to do everything on our own from designing clinical trials to making sure that the trials were statistically significant enough to be accepted by the regulatory authorities. The difference between bio-generics and novel research isn't so much about talent as management risk appetite.
What would be your advice to students aspiring for a career in biotechnology?
Pursue the subject only if it excites you. Not because it's the 'in-thing' or someone they know is pursuing it. Students must dig deeper, figure out what areas within the broad field of biotechnology interests them and focus on those subjects. There's no use being a generalist it won't get you anywhere.