How Reliance Life Sciences moved from being a dream to reality

Murali Gopalan | Updated on January 12, 2018


Cutting-edge Stem cell research at the Reliance Life Sciences lab

First, a confession. I was quite apprehensive initially about reviewing this book since the subject did not sound particularly exciting.

I stand corrected and happily so. Taking Wings and Winning is a remarkable narrative of Reliance Life Sciences penned down in great detail by its President, KV Subramaniam. It also offers delightful insights into some key personalities of the group, including the late Dhirubhai Ambani, who gave the go-ahead to this ambitious project.

Subramaniam has been associated with the Reliance group since 1994, working across a range of sectors. When Mukesh Ambani asked him to look at biotechnology as a new business vertical in 2001, it was a formidable challenge. And even while Subramaniam had no knowledge of the subject, he took it as an opportunity to hone his knowledge in an all-new domain.

Rooted in tragedy

From his point of view, there was another impetus for going flat out in making this dream a reality. It had to to with a tragic accident involving his younger brother, Srinivas, in 1987, during his tenure as a student at IIM Ahmedabad. An accident on a soccer field caused a severe brain injury and a traumatic sequence of events during his hospitalisation. This was the time Subramaniam realised how brutal India’s healthcare system could be in terms of competencies and sheer callousness. His brother was at the mercy of amateurs who had no idea how to go about their job even while he was writhing in pain on the hospital bed. These were hard times for Subramaniam and his family, both emotionally and financially, and it was doubly tragic when Srinivas and his father died in rapid succession.

It was during these hard times that Subramaniam learnt a great deal about the world of medicine and the complexities of the human brain. It was perhaps only fitting that both he and his twin brother, Balasubramaniam, ended up focussing on biotechnology as their professional core even though their backgrounds were in engineering. Fast forward to 2001, when Subramaniam was ready to make a presentation on the life sciences initiative to the legendary Dhirubhai Ambani — or DHA, as he was referred to within Reliance Industries. The project got the nod, and this was when the tough work really started -- from hiring the right people to getting basic work space.

Ethics and commitment

Subramaniam also noticed that some of the new recruits, especially senior team leaders, came with huge attitude, coupled with a certain sense of entitlement and condescension. Fortunately, they left while the real doers stayed on. The struggle for space continued, and it was clear that a complex business like this could not operate out of makeshift locations. The big break came in the form of 20 acres at Navi Mumbai, which today is the home of Reliance Life Sciences.

Subramaniam comes across as someone who puts tremendous emphasis on ethics and commitment. There are interesting anecdotes about colleagues as well as the struggles with Indian bureaucracy. The book is inspirational for young entrepreneurs even if it is occasionally heavy on detail. After reading it, I am no longer intimidated by biotechnology!

Published on May 26, 2017

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