The turn of the century, Mahima Datla believes, changed her life and the fortunes of her family-owned business Biological E. It was then that, armed with an undergraduate degree in business administration from Webster University in the UK, Datla decided to join her family business, a Hyderabad-based pharmaceutical company. Founded in 1948 by her grandfathers as Biological Products Pvt Ltd, the company started out by manufacturing Heparin, a drug to prevent blood clots.
“I didn’t intend to work here,” says Datla, 43, managing director of Biological E. “I didn’t even have a clue about what our business was, because it wasn’t a preset idea that I would graduate and join it. I stayed back because it would look good on my resume.” The plan then, Datla says, was to eventually pursue an MBA before joining a private equity firm or a management consultancy.
But, fate, and perhaps management consultancy McKinsey, had other plans.
Around the time that she joined the business, her father Vijaykumar Datla had engaged McKinsey for a structural rejig of their business. The Datlas had just finished repurchasing a 25 percent stake held by global pharmaceutical major GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). At that time, Biological E made animal vaccines, a drug for tuberculosis, and was largely a contract manufacturing organisation (CMO) for GSK.
Witnessing the rejig from close quarters made Datla change her mind. “The restructuring was helpful for me because it gave me an insight into the different businesses we were in, why we needed to exit certain businesses and appreciate our business,” she says. “Around that time, I was extremely excited about vaccines because it had a profound impact on public health and it’s not very often in your life that you have an opportunity to do that.” Vaccines had then contributed to less than 10 percent of the company’s revenues.
As part of the restructuring, the company took a call to focus on vaccines, starting with a hepatitis B vaccine, as the Indian government embarked on a universal immunisation programme for hepatitis B in 2002. Today that gamble has paid off, with vaccines contributing more than 80 percent to the company’s revenues, and making Biological E a dark horse in India’s quest to find a vaccine for Covid-19.
The company is working on four Covid-19 vaccine candidates, three of which it is co-developing with pharma companies. This August, it tied up with New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson (J&J) to manufacture JNJ-78436735—it is in phase 3 trials—at its production facility in Hyderabad, which was set up in 2017. Coincidentally, the foundation stone for the facility was laid by Paul Stoffels, vice chairman of the executive committee and chief scientific officer at J&J. “We never imagined that the facility would end up manufacturing the vaccine for J&J,” Datla says.
In August, Biological E signed a deal to co-develop a vaccine with pharmaceutical company Dynavax Technologies Corporation (in phase 1 trials), and Houston-based Baylor College of Medicine (in phase 2 trials). It has tied up with Ohio University, and is also in talks with an undisclosed partner to develop one more potential vaccine.
“I am convinced we will have a very big role to play in the solutions for Covid-19 and supply chain in some way or the other,” says Datla. “We have made multiple investments because science is science. And as passionate as I might be about it, at the end of the day, it has to prove itself.”
THE DARK HORSE
At the heart of Datla’s multipronged Covid-19 vaccine gambit is a firm belief in diversifying the technology platforms to develop a vaccine. “If a protein subunit doesn’t work, it is unlikely that a similar protein subunit belonging to someone else will work,” Datla says. “It’s important to de-risk.”
This means the company is working on a viral vector vaccine, similar to the one being developed by AstraZeneca and Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII), an mRNA platform like the one developed by Moderna and Pfizer, and an antigen-based one.
While J&J’s vaccine is on a nonreplicating viral vector, like Russia’s Sputnik V, the one by Baylor College and Biological E uses an antigen (recombinant protein subunit of the coronavirus) along with an adjuvant called CpG 1018 from Dynavax that will boost immune response. Biological E is assessing four different formulations to determine safety and dosage requirements. Clinical trials for this are being conducted in India with close to 400 people and results are expected in February.
“The good part of this technology platform is that it is highly scalable,” says Datla, explaining that unlike Covaxin (being developed by Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech) and AZD1222 (being developed by AstraZeneca), Biological E and Baylor College’s candidate does not need very high lab safety levels. It will, however, be a two-dose vaccine, similar to what numerous other manufacturers are planning. Of the ₹1,100 crore investments that Biological E has earmarked for Covid-19—including vaccine development, trials and manufacturing facilities—more than half will be for conducting phase 3 trials among 30,000 people for this vaccine candidate. Favourable results from its phase 1 and 2 trials will give Biological E enough confidence to start at-risk manufacturing early next year.
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
‘The Middle Class Buys Dreams. The Businessman Sells Unrealistic Ones'
Anand Kumar starts the interview by setting the context. “Let’s get the math right,” says the mathematician.
The Home School of Thought
Concerns over a monotonous, formal education system coupled with edtech’s innovative approaches bolster the homeschooling proposition. But is India ready for it?
The Big Small Question
As Byju’s and Unacademy grow at breakneck speed, what will it take for smaller edtech players to survive?
Beating Bharat's Edtech Blues
On the other side of the billion-dollar edtech boom are children who have been unable to access the most basic forms of online education, and people who have been trying to bridge the digital divide
Handa's New Funda: From Academy to Unacademy
How IITian Ravi Handa scaled up his seven-year-old online venture for MBA preparation, and eventually sold it to an edtech major
Six (and more) Degrees of Fakery
How inaction against the rash of fake universities across the country may be incentivising the mushrooming of more such institutions
Meet The Headmasters
Sequoia Capital has bet big on edtech, with over a dozen investments, including in industry giants Byju’s and Unacademy
A Billion-Dollar Dream For Freshworks
Girish Mathrubootham is taking a cue from the rapid growth of Silicon Valley software startups to reach scale and velocity
Changing How Small-Town India Shops
CityMall founders Angad Kikla and Naisheel Verdhan are building a network of micro-entrepreneurs through their app in smaller cities
Liberal Arts: A Road Less Travelled
Colleges offering these courses in India have begun to gain ground, but for them to truly shine on the global map, they must be cognisant of the country’s culture and challenges
Reincarnation And Realpolitik
China, India, and the U.S. are vying to influence the selection of the next Dalai Lama
An Exclusive Interview With Nandakumar Narasimhan
The Little Red Train
A Room for Dad
Before Mom passed, I made a promise to her
THE DANGAL IN THE JUNGLE, PART 1
YOU KNOW YOU’RE SOMEBODY WHEN YOU’VE APPEARED ON AN INDIAN DANGAL POSTER — IN OTHER WORDS, IN A WRESTLING ADVERTISEMENT.
WOUNDS AND THE WOMB
JULIE PETERS explores how to heal a relationship with the sacred womb, a place of death, life, and possibilities.
Giant squirrels, giant lessons? Animal chaplain SARAH BOWEN explores what squirrels can show us about mindfulness.
E8 Caste and the Indian Tech Ivies
IIT grads are highly sought after in Silicon Valley. Are they bringing deep-rooted prejudices with them?
I was happily married, happily employed, just plain happy. Until the accident
IN SEASON Chickpeas (GARBANZO BEANS)
Chickpeas appear in early recordings in Turkey well over 5000 years ago. India produces the most chickpeas worldwide but they are grown in more than 50 countries. An excellent source of carbohydrates, protein, fiber, B vitamins, and some minerals, they are a nutritious staple of many diets. The name chickpea comes from the Latin word cancer, referring to the plant family of legumes, Fabaceae. It is also known by its popular Spanish-derived name, the garbanzo bean. Kidney beans, black beans, lima beans, and peanuts are other familiar foods found in this legume family.
When the Signal Goes Out
Government-ordered internet shutdowns are becoming more frequent