A V Rama Rao talks to Joanne Thomson about how science has shaped development in India
|A V Rama Rao is founder and managing director of Avra Laboratories in Hyderabad, India, a research-focused company that caters to the process and product needs of the pharmaceutical industry. He has published more than two hundred and fifty papers on the isolation, structural elucidation and synthesis of natural products and has developed more than fifty drug technologies commercialised by the pharmaceutical industry.
What inspired you to become a scientist?
The science of natural products fascinated me in my early days. I was surrounded by inspiration. I lived close to poppy fields - my grandfather was addicted to the morphine made from them to relieve his knee pains. Malaria was common and I used to take quinine tablets whenever I suffered from it. I was also fascinated to see fabrics dyed with natural colours, especially indigo, which was cultivated in India.
What was your big break?
My two year stint with E J Corey at Harvard University. There I realised the importance in choosing the right product for synthesis. I also realised that the product should have some relevance to society. I returned to India to work at the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) in 1977.
I started working on anthracyclines, especially the anti-tumour agents daunomycin, adriamycin and fredericamycin. We were the second group to complete the total synthesis of fredericamycin. At the time, nearly fifty research groups, globally, had initiated the work.
Most of my senior colleagues at NCL discouraged me from taking on these types of challenging synthetic projects as the institute (albeit a premier one) was not well equipped and it took months to import reagents at the time (the early 1980s). In spite of all these hurdles, I was always keen on tackling such fascinating projects.
"My major breakthrough in industrial research was the successful launch of vincristine and vinblastine, two natural alkaloids used in anti-tumour agents"
I was a strong believer in helping the Indian chemical industry and was associated with several pharmaceutical firms, in particular Cipla. My major breakthrough in industrial research was the successful launch of vincristine and vinblastine, two natural alkaloids used in anti-tumour agents. The products were launched by Cipla at one tenth of the price of what was prevailing on the international market.
You founded Avra Laboratories in 1995. What were your motivations and what are your aspirations for the company for the years ahead?
When I retired as director of the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology in 1995, I wanted an exciting and viable alternative. I decided not to accept a distinguished scientist position at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research because normally, such distinguished persons feel more like extinguished entities within the organisation. I decided to utilise my scientific expertise to tackle some industrial projects. Most people become consultants as it is an easy option. I wanted to offer more than paper solutions; I wanted to have a lab where I could work with a team of scientists and provide real solutions on a fee for service model. This idea led to the genesis of Avra Laboratories.
Today, Avra has full time staff of over 200 people. We focus on chemical R&D and work with several US-based pharma companies. We also carry out process chemistry for new chemical entities and produce on pilot scale amounts from 10 to 500 kg.
In the future, we would like to align with some of the big pharma companies and offer our R&D services on a long-term basis.
Your sons, Ramakrishna and Chandra, both work at Avra. How important is it to you to maintain these family connections in business?
For a medium-sized industry like us, I feel it is better to be run by family, provided that they are well qualified to lead the team. Ramakrishna has a Master's degree in industrial chemistry and an MBA. He meticulously plans the commercial operations. Chandra obtained a PhD in organic chemistry from Cambridge University. He is a very good communicator and inspires young R&D personnel in Avra. All three of us have defined roles and operate professionally.
You also set up the A V Rama Rao Research Foundation. What are the objectives and goals of the foundation?
The foundation is engaged in discovering and encouraging scientific talent in India. It organises annual lectures and seminars at various locations in the country and gives out awards to outstanding scientists in the chemical sciences. The foundation also has a PhD programme with Osmania University.
"I would encourage the youth to look into the limitless options offered in a scientific career with a dream of being a successful technocrat"
You are clearly passionate about inspiring the next generation of scientists. If you had one piece of advice to pass onto them, what would it be?
Science and technology have shaped our lives and the future of the planet depends on innovation. To ensure our security and quality of life, we have depended on scientists for providing better solutions. Working towards understanding a problem and finding a solution provides a terrific sense of achievement. Also in today's world, scientists are getting more financially savvy as entrepreneurs ensuring their concepts and ideas bring them monetary rewards. I would encourage the youth to look into the limitless options offered in a scientific career with a dream of being a successful technocrat.
You were awarded the Padmashree by the president of India in 1991. Could you explain to me what this is?
The Padma awards are given to civilians who have made a long-lasting impact on Indian society in any specialised area, such as the fine arts, science and technology, medicine or business. They are similar to the titles the British Queen gives out, like the OBE, CBE and knighthood. However, there is one difference - Padma awards are not to be used as titles. I received mine for my contributions towards organic chemistry and especially pharmaceutical technology that has allowed affordable medicine in the country.
India is becoming a major player in chemical research. How important do you think chemistry is to the future development of India?
Since we joined the World Trade Organisation, the Indian pharma industry has been rapidly expanding and now employs even expats in top R&D positions. During the last three years, many international pharma companies have started R&D divisions in India and the government has doubled the R&D budget for public institutions. I believe India is among the few developing nations that can boast of an indigenous but globally respected chemical industry. India thus has an established platform to enable it to gain further stature as a hub for manufacturing and innovation by taking advantage of the lower costs and abundant talent.
"I believe there will be consolidation in the Indian chemical space with mergers and acquisitions. The pressure to survive might kindle innovating strategies that could cater to an unmet need at the time"
The future development of India would require the Indian industry to build on the lead that may exist in certain sectors, the chemical space being one of them.
The generic market has always been the mainstay of the Indian pharmaceutical industry but competition has increased greatly in recent years. What strategies should companies adopt in the coming years to survive?
Competition is good for the consumer and puts pressure on manufacturers to innovate and bring in efficiencies of scale. If you cannot beat your competitor, the other option would be to join him. I believe there will be consolidation in the Indian chemical space with mergers and acquisitions. The pressure to survive might kindle innovating strategies that could cater to an unmet need at the time.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
When I was in college, my father asked me to apply for a position as a clerk in the postal department. I sent in an application and was selected for the job. My father insisted that I take the job because he believed a government job offered security and a pension on retirement. Somehow the vision of a postal clerk sitting at a desk did not seem appealing. We grew up at a time when career options were limited and aspirations were more for security. I am glad that I chose to be a scientist and it was indeed my choice. It has been a fulfilling career, as a scientist and now as an entrepreneur. My mind has always been stimulated and I have enough money for a comfortable future.