She was “slightly embarrassed” when she learnt that her name figures on the Hurun India Rich list 2020 — in fact, she was the only woman from the two Telugu states on it.
“I was the subject of many jokes from close friends,” smiles Mahima Datla, managing director, Biological E.
“But on a serious note, if this was a validation of all the efforts to get here, I’m grateful. I’m also incredibly happy if it inspires women out there to dream big, start visualising their own success and have the confidence to fight those battles and make a great career of their own,” says the ‘accidental entrepreneur.’
A student, who did not have a science background, she found herself helming the family’s pharma business. And what is more, this 44-year-old has taken the business to new heights and made it one of the top companies producing vaccines and saving lives.
When she talks about her journey, one thing becomes clear — she braved all odds to make her company, Biological E (BE) great.
“Growing up, it was never a pre-set idea to join the family business. However, when I joined the company, we were also in the midst of restructuring and I wanted to be involved. That exercise helped me understand and appreciate what we were doing. This was also the time I came to understand how important vaccination is and how our company has the power to save lives. I decided to stay, and like they say, the rest is history. I can’t believe it’s been over 20 years,” says Mahima, who did an undergraduate course in Business Administration and had long-term plans of joining an investment or consultancy firm.
BE has now expanded its portfolio to include 8 WHO pre-qualified products. It also has 6-8 other crucial products in the pipeline.
As the Omicron variant spreads, Biological E Limited is racing against time and preparing to launch its Covid vaccine ‘Corbevax’ soon, as the Govt approves emergency use of Corbevax. “Being one of the oldest players and leading global supplier of vaccines, it was definitely a huge responsibility to find a solution for this deadly virus. How could we not do anything to be a part of the solution?” says the Managing Director & CEO of the company.
Vaccines for all
Biological E (BE) began its journey with vaccines and generic biological products such as heparin injections. They added new technology and began manufacturing Tetanus Toxoid (TT) and Diphtheria, Tetanus, and whole cell Pertussis (DTwP) vaccines for sale in India.
“Vaccinations were not a well-funded public health priority in most countries, and there was a struggle to come up with the finances to introduce new vaccines. Until 1990, things remained the same,” notes Mahima. “When the Children’s Vaccine Initiative (CVI) was launched, its mission to immunize all children and bring in new vaccines for infectious diseases changed the game.”
As per statistics, about 30 million children in poor countries went without being fully immunized because of the cost.
A major shift occurred in the industry thanks to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI).
“Biological E realized that the Pentavalent vaccine was the product of the future. We needed to develop and effectively combine Hepatitis B and Hib with our DTwP vaccine. We worked hard, and it paid off. In 2011, BioE successfully licensed the Liquid Pentavalent Vaccine (LPV) in India, and in 2012 it received the WHO prequalification. This milestone catapulted the company into a new era of growth,” says the entrepreneur adding, “We have supplied over 400 million doses of LPV to more than 80 countries and there isn’t a country on this planet that hasn’t introduced this critical vaccine in part because of our efforts.”
With the whole world focussing on preventing and fighting COVID, there was a risk of other regular vaccination schedules being disrupted.
The Hyderabad woman who made headlines for coming up with the country’s first low-cost vaccine, Corbevax, says, “The efficiencies gained in large-scale manufacture that contributes to the overhead costs (manpower, CAPEX, utilities, maintenance, testing) being spread over a larger number of vaccine doses because of our huge scale, gives us the opportunity to provide the vaccines more cost-effectively. Apart from this, we worked on a mechanism of pricing to pass-on the benefit gained out of the funding by CEPI, BIRAC and COVID Suraksha. We believe this can greatly help the government-led initiative of vaccination and ensure availability of vaccines to the poorest.”
The family business
With no science background, Mahima had no plans to take over the family-owned business.
“When I decided to take up business administration for under-graduation, it felt like the right thing to do, and I have no qualms admitting that it was also because I knew I didn’t want to take up medicine or engineering. I wanted some good experience and figure out how I could contribute to society.”
She says with time, she was drawn towards the vaccine side of the business because of how impactful the work was. “It gave some purpose to my life,” she says, adding, “I feel proud that 1 in 2 children in the country are using our vaccines and we are helping governments across the world introduce new lifesaving vaccines for their children, because we make it cost-effective to do so.”
"Personally, I can’t think of a better way to spend my life,” says Mahima, who absolutely loves everything about her work. “I love the challenge and opportunity for learning, introspection and personal growth it has provided me over the years. At the end of the day, how many people can say the work I do contributed to saving lives? I can never be grateful enough for the opportunity it has provided our family and the chance we have got to create livelihoods and empower others,” she says.
Family support system
Mahima considers her father her mentor. “I look up to a lot of people and we have an excellent scientific advisory board to help us navigate
important decisions, not to mention a great leadership team whom I’m constantly learning from,” she says.
The business magnate believes that everything in life is so much harder without the right support system. Unfortunately, not everybody has it. “In my case, I am incredibly lucky. My sisters Purnima and Indira are the wind beneath my wings and I don’t know what I would do without them. My family is unconditional in their support and it actually makes me feel even more responsible for their faith in me,” she says.
She credits her success to parents and family. “And my success is also undoubtedly a result of my colleagues’ efforts and the leadership team at the company. My job is only to facilitate the execution of their ideas. It’s also because of the more obvious things like investing in the right things at the right time, lots of hard work and lots of luck & blessings.”...