Three drug research centers in four months. That was the scorching pace at which late former President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam inaugurated the massive research centres of Indian drugmkers in 2004.
And be it Wockhardt, the then Nicholas Piramal or Sun Pharma, Kalam’s message to the scientists was universal – seize the research opportunity.
For the scientific minds gathered there, these were not regular words of encouragement from the President, but a call to use innovation and research to improve public health. And it came from a scientist who had used his knowledge of missile-technology to help develop an artifical leg that was way lighter that the ones people then used.
In fact, his Kalam-Raju stent (wires inserted into blood vessels) is, more than ever, relevant today, as policymakers discuss the quality and pricing of locally manufactured medical devices.
Kalam was always more than just missiles, as he took the time to personally meet scientists, urging them to plunge into the breakthrough pathways in front of them, from stemcells and proteomics to nano-technology
Besides igniting scientific minds, the timing behind Kalam’s inauguration of the drug research centers, between September and December 2004, had its own significance too. And it came up in his address to the scientists as well.
India was then just days away from implementing the product patent regime, from January 1, 2005. And the new intellectual property (IP) intensive regime was expected to put pressure on domestic drugmakers to innovate, as it made it difficult for anyone to make similar copies of original products.
Inaugrating Wockhardt’s biotech park at Aurangabad, Kalam told domestic drugmakers to become competitive, cost-effective and "just in time" in the post-2005 regime when product-patents came into effect.
And later at the November inaugural of Piramal’s research centre in suburban Mumbai, he said: "On January 1, 2005 the Indian pharmaceutical industry will face a challenge of demanding indigenous design of drugs, which will have a profound impact on global competitiveness and business viability. The new product patent regime will affect a sea change in the way Indian pharmaceutical companies think and do business."
Picking up on a prevailing trend, he urged companies to invest in developing a complete drug in India and not outsource it at early stages to the multinationals.
“In India, many R&D organisations and pharma industries discover the molecules, but most of these newly discovered pharmaceutical molecules are sold to multinationals abroad for further development to drug. Naturally, the benefit of value addition goes to the companies abroad. Molecule to drug is indeed the business of strong minds with the capacity to take calculated risks," he pointed out.
With risks come failure. And Kalam pointed out how failure too can be handled with some good leadership. Dipping into his own experience, Kalam recounted how former ISRO chief Satish Dhawan took the brunt of media queries on an unsuccessful mission to launch SLV-3, despite Kalam being the mission director. Having taken the brickbats, when it came to accolades on a successful mission later, Dhawan put Kalam upfront to soak the glory, the then President said, giving his audience a real life story of leadership and inspiration that they were unlikely to forget in a hurry.