Start-up Stories: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw thinks her training in brewing helped her found biotech company Biocon.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw is one of the richest women in India. She is the founder of Biocon, a biotech company and Asia's largest insulin maker.

But the chairman and managing director attributes her success to her go-getting nature rather than entrepreneurial spirit.

Ms Mazumdar-Shaw originally trained to become a brewer in Australia, before returning to India to follow in her father's footsteps as a brew-master.

But she struggled to find a job on her return and recalls the industry wasn't ready for a strong female presence. "The brewing industry is a very, very male dominated industry" she says. "It's a male bastion."


She refused to be thwarted. "I really wanted to do something with my life," she remembers. It was this rebellious streak that inspired her to start her own company, although she admits the opportunity was more by chance.

"This is why I call myself an accidental entrepreneur - because it was an accidental encounter with another entrepreneur… who wanted to set up shop in India and… asked me whether I would be able to partner this venture," she says.

The chance meeting persuaded Ms Mazumdar-Shaw to launch into the business of developing and making enzymes.

She says she wasn't daunted by the transition from brewery to biotech. "If you think about brewing, it is biotechnology. And I would say that I was a technologist at heart. So whether I... fermented beer or whether I fermented enzymes, the base technology was the same."

Female entrepreneurs

Start Quote

Banks were very fearful of lending to a woman because I was considered high risk”

End Quote Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw Founder, Biocon

Gradually she moved the business into manufacturing medicines. The original development and sale of enzymes gave her the cash flow to fund the research and production of pharmaceutical drugs.

She feels this was a canny business move.

"There was no venture funding in India, so it forced me to create a business model that was based on revenues and profits."

She adds: "That got us into a very different kind of format… to the typical biotech format, which depends largely on VC [venture capitalist] funding."

But she admits that even as a female entrepreneur she still had to contend with the old issue of gender prejudice.

"Banks were very fearful of lending to a woman because I was considered high risk."

Her age and the relatively new area of biotechnology didn't help matters: "I was young, I was twenty-five years old… banks were very nervous about lending to young entrepreneurs because they felt we didn't have the business experience… and then I had… this strange business called biotechnology which no one understood."

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw says her previous experience of failure gave her the resilience to persevere.

Biocon, Bangalore Bangalore has developed from a quiet city into South India's technology hub

"I was determined to make a success of this business because I had failed to be a brew master," she admits.

"I just kept knocking at people's doors and I said 'look you've got to… help me'. I did manage to persuade a few people to stand by me and fund me and that's how I got the business started."


Ms. Mazumdar-Shaw started Biocon in 1978 when Bangalore had yet to become the hub of technology of South India.

She remembers it as a "sleepy old retired city" but says it was an exciting place to start experimenting.

"We were first generation entrepreneurs trying to start high technology businesses… whether it was IT and services, or whether it was my biotech business… that was a time where there was tremendous energy, you know, being unleashed."

Now she says the transformation of Bangalore into a "vibrant high growth centre" reflects the paradox of India. She believes the contrast between high wealth and extreme poverty - often within a few kilometres of each other - is the result of a failure to follow an inclusive economic agenda.

Social Entrepreneurship

Aside from running Biocon, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw has also undertaken some social entrepreneurship projects.

One area she's become involved with is public health. "I am very concerned about the fact that India as a country does not have a national health system, and I am determined to try and influence the government to really build a national health system for the country," she says.

In the meantime, she has created a network of small clinics to provide some basic health care in rural areas.

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  • Turnover (2010): Rs 2400 Cr, approx 535 million US dollars
  • Number of employees: 5000
  • HQ Location: Bangalore
  • Year founded: 1978
  • Ownership: Listed on BSE & NSE (India)

It's a part of a "micro health insurance programme" funded largely by her, with small donations from those using it.

Pick yourself up

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw says self-confidence is an important factor in entrepreneurship.

"A can-do attitude" is essential because obstacles and difficulties are inevitable. "I've had many failures in terms of technological… business… and even research failures," she explains.

"I really believe that entrepreneurship is about being able to face failure, manage failure and succeed after failing."

The key is to be able to tell the difference between total failure and setbacks which can be overcome.

"I think in my particular case, I've seen that failures are not absolute. That you can build and modify those failures to succeed."

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