Bharat Biotech’s Booster Shots
Jalachari Ella, Raches Ella,Head of Corporate Strategy, Bharat Biotech; Former Project Lead, SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, Bharat Biotech
Raches was six and his sister Jalachari 11 when their father, Krishna M. Ella, decided to leave his job as a faculty member at Medical University of South Carolina, U.S., and return to India to start a vaccine company. Twenty five years later, the children, both medical doctors now, played an active role in research, development, production and supply of India’s first Covid-19 vaccine, Covaxin, developed by Bharat Biotech International Ltd. (BBIL), founded by Krishna M. Ella and his wife Suchitra Ella. BBIL used the virus strain isolated by National Institute of Virology to develop the vaccine.
No, they were not groomed for these roles. “Science beckoned,” just like it had when their parents got “this crazy idea” decades ago, say the siblings. “With both parents in the business, work came home. Jala and I (as kids) never complained about it. We used to be immersed in these conversations. We felt intrigued. If Bill Gates is giving us a grant for (developing) a vaccine (for rotavirus), we must be doing some great stuff, we thought. That triggered our curiosity. When I was figuring out what to do, I realised you can’t take me away from vaccines,” says Dr. Raches. His sister agrees. “Although we were exposed to entrepreneurial culture from a young age, we were not groomed to join the business. I think that was intentional. This (BBIL) was an endeavour our parents had embarked upon. They wanted us to venture out. But innovation, especially in life sciences, drove us (to BBIL),” says Dr. Jalachari, a dermatologist who quit her plan to open a speciality clinic to join the family business, spread across research-driven pharma, biotech and food sectors.
The privately held BBIL has been doing brisk business during the Covid-19 period. April-September 2021 (H1 FY2022) income touched a record ₹3,076 crore, double of ₹1,501 crore in FY2021, says rating agency ICRA. Net profit was ₹828 crore in first half of FY2022, up from ₹421 crore in FY2021. In FY2020, profit after tax was ₹298 crore, on standalone operating income of ₹1,081 crore. It seems good science can be good business too.And science is what the siblings have been good at. Dr. Raches, 32, an MBBS with Master of Science in clinical research from Emory University and postdoctoral fellowship from Johns Hopkins University, joined the company in 2016 as head, business development & advocacy, and was responsible for searching new opportunities, technologies and products, apart from executing later-stage out-licensing collaborations. When Covid-19 struck, he was made project lead for two vaccines—Covaxin, which has been licensed in 70 countries, and an intranasal vaccine that is undergoing Phase-III human trials. He also co-authored over a dozen papers on Covid-19 vaccine research in globally-reputed peer-viewed publications.
Between the two stints, in 2018, he took a one-year sabbatical to go to Johns Hopkins, though he says there wasn’t a day when he did not ‘talk about the strategy of BBIL’. Now, he is on another break for MBA at Harvard Business School (Class of 2023). “I am still involved (in the company) and figuring out what to do next. I hope Covid-19 is done with because we have a huge set of new vaccines that needs those facilities,” he says.
Dr. Jalachari, 37, joined BBIL in 2014 after her father asked her to head the bio-therapeutic division. Today, these products come under a separate company, Anamay Biotech, which offers wound/burns management and dermatological solutions. She was also tasked with handling vaccine distribution during Covid-19 as traditional channels were too narrow (vaccines were mostly meant for national immunisation programmes). “The challenge was to find a process for equitable distribution of limited supply that we had at that crucial period. We were reducing 50 doses from here or 100 doses from there in order to accept deserving requests. It was a stressful period. Requests were also coming from outside the country,” says Dr. Jalachari, whose role also involves strategising business development for vaccines and bio-therapeutics. She is also responsible for growth forecasting and positioning, apart from scientific, internal and external communications.
The Ella siblings are certain that they will focus on introducing research-driven products as they move past the Covid-19 era. “Manufacturing of all vaccines was stopped as we prioritised Covaxin and nobody needed elective vaccines. Of course, there was a decent stockpile of vaccines that were part of the immunisation programme, as their shelf life is 12-24 months. Now, we have started utilising some facilities for other vaccines too,” says Dr. Jalachari. The ongoing sub-vaccine programme for chikungunya, a combination vaccine for Covid-19 and influenza, a variant of rotavirus vaccine and intra-nasal Covid-19 vaccine candidate are products in the pipeline that will keep them busy for the next 10-12 years, she says.
Dr. Raches says he wants to introduce new-generation products for chronic diseases such as cancer. “My text books have taught me that infectious diseases were number one killers in 1980s and 1990s but are declining. What is going up are chronic diseases, be it diabetes, cardiovascular diseases or cancer. So, my dream for BBIL and other companies is making inroads into tackling chronic diseases. We would like to develop technologies like T Cell therapies for cancer patients and personalised medications based on CRISPR technology.” CRISPR helps gene editing for treating illnesses and developing biotech medicines.
“We have the ability, the understanding, to do this. We need the right facility, the right human resources. This is a 5-10 year play, but I think this is where we, as Dr. Ella’s children, will be able to carry on his legacy and continue to innovate,” he adds.
Dr. Raches says even after he returns from his
B-School, balance sheet will not be the sole criteria for future planning. He adds the family has no plans to raise funds through a public listing. “The value we bring will be based on the impact we have on morbidity and mortality rates. That’s where I get the ultimate satisfaction, but
we surely have a revenue target of $2 billion 5-10 years from now.”
The other businesses are smaller, though. Anamay Biotech, for instance, is targeting the niche segment of physicians, plastic surgeons, orthopaedics, general surgeons and dermatologists in India. It exports to 11 countries. “Anamay Biotech earns around ₹12 crore revenue from trade sales and another ₹15-20 crore from exports and institutional sales put together. Covid-19 acted as a speed bump, but we were able to come back. We will close at around 20% growth this year. This is a fast-growing segment,” says Dr. Jalachari. She also heads veterinary vaccine firm Biovet Pvt. Ltd. as CEO. The Karnataka-based firm has India’s 1st and world’s 2nd BSL-3+ animal production facility. BSL-3 (Biosafety Level-3) facility can handle viruses and other biological organisms for production of vaccines with maximum protection against contamination and leakages. Biovet had used the facility to make Covaxin during the peak Covid-19 period. The family also owns Ella Foods, whose production facility is among the few which use advanced cryogenic manufacturing, gamma sterilisation and ingredients such as cold pressed oils and probiotics to come out with a range of pure spices, blended spices, health drinks, probiotic-rich ready-to-eat foods, low sodium pickles and low sodium nuts/snacks.
Dr. Jalachari says Ella Foods will not compete with regular commercial products in the FMCG space but will be a high-value niche offering for the discerning within the country and abroad. “We are getting into minds of people who want good ingredients, fresh ingredients, and who are mindful of what they eat,” she adds.
While the non-vaccine ventures pick up scale, the main focus will remain on BBIL. Covaxin has just received US FDA approvals for clinical trials. A safe, low-cost, Indian Covid-19 vaccine, available as an annual shot option, much like the flu vaccine, might be the next big announcement. Having worked towards it, the siblings remain upbeat.