Success hasn't come easy for Suchitra Ella. Reflecting on the journey of her biotech firm, she talks about the effort that has been worth it
When the searing heat gives way to monsoons, Suchitra Ella hopes her firm will have the licence for the commercial manufacture of H1N1 vaccine. “The clinical trials were done in January and we are awaiting approvals from the Drug Controller Authority of India,” she says.
The vaccines that will eventually roll out of Bharat Biotech, the biotech major that she co-founded with her husband Dr. Krishna Ella, will have to be made affordable, she notes. “We need international quality vaccines for the country but not at international prices.”
As joint managing director, in-charge of marketing, operations and communications of the biotech firm in Genome Valley, Shameerpet, Suchitra Ella has travelled a path quite different from her original academic training — economics in Ethiraj College, Chennai.
In the late 80s and early 90s, she and her husband lived in the US before returning to India to set up a biotech firm. “It was like being blindfolded, let into a dark and hostile territory without any help,” she reminisces. She could fall back on economics to eke out a career but wanted to partake in her husband's dream of manufacturing vaccines and making them affordable. “Even in the US, our peers asked us why we wanted to return to India when many Indians were headed Westwards during the IT boom in the 90s,” recalls Suchitra.
Though both Dr. Krishna and Suchitra grew up in Tamil Nadu, they chose to set up business in Hyderabad, given the strong presence of pharma units in the city. Yet, they had to start from scratch.
If looking for finances was an issue, a tougher task was changing mindsets. “Research students, at that point of time, preferred working in government-owned or university research labs, conducting experiments and publishing papers and theses. They doubted if a private firm could guarantee the same freedom in research. Of course, a biotech firm is commercial but your research experiments are put to use to develop vaccines. Those who believed in us joined us and others felt we are crazy. We had to do some mentoring initially. Plus, we have a mindset that if something has not been done in the West or Japan, India cannot do it,” Suchitra explains.
The Genome Valley is a recent addition to Hyderabad. When the couple set up Bharat Biotech in 1996, the land was barren, “with stones, bushes and a few custard apple plants,” she recalls. “According to government regulations, new manufacturing units could be set up only 25 kms away from the heart of the city. During construction work, we used to commute back and forth each day and even carrying five-litre drinking water cans. There were no restrooms too at the construction site.”
She had to have a tight rein over finances for the first three years, she points out. “The first product came out after three years. Until then, we had to count each rupee spent. Internet connectivity was also out of question in the outskirts.”
Plus, they had to deal with the laidback nature of Hyderabad. “I've lived both in the North and the laidback Southern part of the US. But Hyderabad's nature was something else. Work used to begin at 11 or 12 noon compared to the brisk, early mornings in Chennai,” she laughs. Still, she preferred Hyderabad over Bangalore. “We could buy property in the US but not in Bangalore. And Bangalore was witnessing an IT boom in the 90s and wasn't really conducive for us.”
Suchitra describes her present role in the company rather succinctly: “If my husband is the brain of the company I am the heart.”
She is proud that Bharat Biotech is the second company in the world to be able to manufacture mercury-free vaccines for Hepatitis-B. “Our vaccines are 99 per cent chemical free. We don't use even the WHO permissible limit of Caesium Chloride, making the Hepatitis-B vaccine fit to be administered to one-day old babies,” she explains.
Suchitra credits her ability to handle diverse roles to her upbringing. “My father was a mining engineer in Neyveli and we had all the comforts at home. Yet, I wasn't allowed to commute by car to school. I took the school bus or the bicycle. Little things like that taught me how to manage things on my own,” she says.
Years later, all that training came in useful when she had to multitask in the US. “I was a mother of two children, working and bringing in the pay cheque when my husband was pursuing his Ph.D,” she recalls. “I was into marketing, an area where very few non-whites were employed,” she says, referring to the time she was working in customer operations in Waikiki Corporation and Woodman's.
Returning to India, she worked for over 12 hours each day while setting up Bharat Biotech. “The company was like my third child. For me, having children was no excuse to not take up new challenges on the work front.”
Today, she is eager to take on new, more socially relevant roles. “I want to do something to give back to society. The focus is going to be on social responsibility,” she says.