Swati Piramal does not believe she has been unfaithful to the Hippocratic oath by turning businesswoman. She believes this way, she is able to influence the lives of a larger group of people. In her words, “As a practioner, you can at best reach out to 500 patients in a month. I am glad that with my pharma research and public health services, I have been able to create an impact on thousands of people across the country.”
She is talking not only of scientific research − she heads Piramal Healthcare’s scientists’ team − but also through the Piramal Foundation, which apart from operating a fleet of mobile health vans, also runs water ATMs and works on conservation projects. She holds a MBBS degree from Mumbai University and a Masters degree from Harvard School of Public Health. Dr Swati Piramal, Vice Chairperson, Piramal Enterprises, is a doctor, businesswoman, scientist and philanthropist − all rolled into one.
Many pharma companies have diversified overseas. What is the Piramal Group going to focus on over the next decade?
We want to build our domestic and global businesses equally well. We derive a third of revenues from India now. In future, India will account for half the group’s revenue. In a growing economy where opportunities are aplenty, we would not like to restrict ourselves to any specific type of business. That said, we would like to stick to the ones that closely correspond with our core values. For instance, being in the healthcare industry, we would not like to sell alcohol or tobacco. We are not interested in businesses which clearly go against our values.
Having looked at all sectors, right from infra, agriculture, education to hospital, we have decided to focus on four areas − healthcare, realty, financial services and glass − where we have built world-scale businesses and are doing quite well.
In the healthcare segment, we have decided not to get into hospitals, vaccines and biologic drugs. Hospitals being our customers, it does not make sense to compete with them. However, we support hospitals in two ways. One by supplying drugs to them; second, we also have a fund where we provide growth capital for hospitals.
Many pharma companies are excited about the biopharma space. Why have you have decided not to pursue the business?
We have decided not to work on biosimilars, given that it is very hard to get approvals. Biologic drugs are primarily proteins which act in multiple ways. It is very hard to get a clear indication of how they work. We are way behind the West with respect to biological sciences. We try to copy them without understanding how it works.
Fundamental biologic research in India is still at a very nascent stage. For instance, in the US, universities such as Harvard and Stanford do a lot of work on fundamental biology with the support of the government. In India, government spending is very low. We cannot compete with the West on the basis of work they do. We lag behind them with respect to understanding of biology and R&D investment. There are many Indian scientists who work in these countries, but unfortunately, we don’t have the budget to attract and retain them here.
What is the reason for the flight of talent out of India?
Many investigational scientists are not coming to India anymore as clinical trials have almost come to a grinding halt, which is a serious concern. When I look back, five years ago, we were flooded with applications from scientists who wanted to relocate to India. But today, there are hardly any scientists who want to come back to India.
Asia-Pacific countries − Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia − support and attract such a talented pool. With the setting up of Biopolis, an international R&D centre, Singapore has the highest concentration of scientists. Compensation is not the only reason; so is the ecosystem. It takes 18 months to get a clinical study approved in India and if we need to change a protocol, it takes another eight months. The trial sponsor company will have to go back to the committee and get it changed. In contrast, a clinical trial approval takes just 28 days in the US. To change the protocol, all you have to do is just notify them and if they agree, they will give a go-ahead.
Here, you need to present your case and wait for the next committee meeting, which is quite infrequent too. It is so frustrating for scientists when they get stuck indefinitely due to regulatory hassles.
What makes molecular imaging an interesting business?
Take prostrate cancer. The disease progresses very slowly. It is not easy to detect before it does some serious damage to health. But if you can detect it early, there are very good treatment options. Today, we have an imaging molecule for Alzheimer’s.
Most people think that loss of memory is due to ageing. But it is not. It could be because of plaques in the brain or due to a tumour. Though there aren’t many treatment options for Alzheimer’s today, you will at least get to know if it is Alzheimer’s at all. So we believe that diagnosis is very important to decide on a treatment course. Molecular imaging is a completely new field, yet very exciting, which is why I am putting in a lot of time and effort.
Could you tell us more about your social and philanthropic activities?
Through the Piramal Foundation, we aim to address the country’s most pressing issues. The programmes sponsored by the foundation are focused on four key areas − healthcare, education, livelihood creation and youth empowerment.
Piramal Swasthya, with the support of the government, runs a dedicated non-emergency helpline (104) which caters to the primary healthcare needs of over 7.9 million people across Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Assam and Andhra Pradesh. It also runs a fleet of mobile health vans equipped with medical devices, technology and healthcare workers.
Piramal Sarvajal, another initiative by the Foundation, launched in 2009, provides drinking water to over a lakh people on a daily basis at an affordable ₹0.3 per litre. At present, we run 150-plus filtration plants, including water ATMs. The plant works on a reverse osmosis and UV-based filtration technology.
Piramal Foundation for Education Leadership provides training to government teachers and headmasters who are in service, resource persons and block/district officials in Rajasthan. Piramal Udgam (earlier known as Source for Change), a rural BPO set up by the foundation, has provided employment to over 500 people. Apart from this, I am passionate about conserving rare plants and orchids. We got a million flowers to bloom at the same time at the Mahabaleshwar flower show recently. We are also trying to help Malabar giant squirrels, which are facing extinction due to felling of trees.