Scientific Research and Entrepreneurship does not go hand in hand: Dr AV Rama Rao

Interview with 2016 Padma Bhushan Awardee, Dr Alla Venkata Rama Rao

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2016 Padma Bhushan Awardee, Dr Alla Venkata Rama Rao

Dr Alla Venkata Rama Rao (Dr AV Rama Rao) need no introduction. Rama Rao is the only Fellow of the Indian National Science Academy (FNA) who has trained 112 Ph.D. students, published more than 250 papers in reputed international scientific journals, developed over 30 process technologies for making life saving drugs more affordable and finally after retiring as Director of Indian Institute of Chemical Technology, built a multi-million dollar pharmaceutical company (Avra Laboratories) that currently has over 550 employees.

First of all, Many Congratulations on winning the prestigious Padma Bhushan Award. Please describe your journey so far.
Dr AV Rama Rao: I was born and brought up in Guntur (A.P.) and did my graduation (Chemistry) in 1956 from A.C. College. After working for two years as demonstrator and technical assistant in A.C. College and Agricultural College, Bapatla, respectively, I joined Bombay University Department of Chemical Technology (BUDCT) in 1958 for my graduation in Chemical Technology with specialization in pharmaceuticals and fine chemicals. I continued my career as a Ph.D. student at National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) under the guidance of Prof. K. Venkataraman, the then Director of NCL and obtained my degree, Ph.D (Tech.) in 1964. Unlike many who go abroad to pursue their post-doctoral career, I followed Prof. Venkataraman's advice to stay at NCL and worked on the structure of lac dye, an age old problem unsolved for almost 100 years. I was offered Scientist B at NCL in 1965, without crossing the seas. For the next 7 years, I was totally committed to academic research and believed that industrial research means a mediocre work that was carried out by industrial laboratories. In 1973 based on CSIR directive I initiated, process chemistry and came out with a novel process for manufacturing Diazepam, an anti-anxiety agent and used widely world over. During that period I met Dr. Y.K. Hamied, the present Chairman of Cipla, who showed keen interest to commercialize my process without wasting much time. This was the first example of a CSIR Technology transfer to Industry and successfully commercialized in 1973. Since then I brought the culture of institutions and industry interaction and helped pharmaceutical industries in several ways.

In 1975, I felt the need to spend two years at Harvard University in Prof. E.J. Corey's group (Nobel Laureate in Chemistry in 1991) to enhance my skills in organic synthesis. This exposure brought a big change in my outlook on scientific and industrial research. I was selected as head of the organic chemistry division at NCL in 1980. I established in India for the first time a school of excellence for the synthesis of bio-functional molecules such as anti-tumor antibiotics, immunosuppressants, cyclic peptides including vancomycin etc. I moved to Hyderabad in 1985 as Director of RRL and transformed the Regional Research Laboratory (RRL) into more globally respected Indian Institute of Chemical Technology.

I was the first Indian Scientist to take the lead in nurturing and fostering integration in basic science, technology development and engineering design to provide complete package for commercial exploitation. I was also instrumental in pioneering the concept of institution and industrial interaction with several leading pharmaceutical industries such as Cipla, Lupin, Cadila, Dr. Reddy's, FDC etc. I was also responsible in developing alternative affordable technologies for several essential drugs including anti-HIV drugs which enabled the Indian pharmaceutical industry to introduce them in the market at a fraction of the prevailing international prices.

You are one of the few scientists entrepreneur who have successfully commercialized research. What is the secret recipe of your success? What advice would you give to the scientists who want to commercialize their research?
Dr AV Rama Rao: While working at NCL, I started working as a consultant to Indian pharmaceutical industries. I had long association with Cipla and interacted closely with Dr. Y.K. Hamied on various aspects on products from the concept of identifying the compound, developing laboratory scale suitable process that can be adopted by the industry and finally marketing the same. This knowledge enabled me to attract funds from private industries. It is essential to have close links with the manufacturing chemists and engineers and incorporating various parameters that go into smooth commercialization. Before we undertake lab work, I also insist on my collegues to work out paper technology taking into account the cost of raw materials, alternative affordable technologies and finally transfer to industry. I always believe that the success of technology depends on many people who are working on the shop floor and if it fails, I use to take the entire blame but never happened.

 

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