The son of a cardiologist, Dr Rashmi Barbhaiya opted not to tread
his father's footsteps and entered the arena of pharmaceuticals
pursuing higher education in clinical pharmacology. More than two
decades later, the father proudly describes his son's achievement: “As
a doctor I can treat about 20 patients a day; while Dr Rashmi's work,
with such a strong base in pharmaceutical R&D, can help save the
lives of millions”
When one throws a ball at the
wall, it rebounds. But the force with
which it rebounds depends on whether the ball is hard or soft. If it is
tennis ball then the force will be more. The exit of Dr Rashmi
Barbhaiya from Ranbaxy in 2004 had similar situation, as he was pushed
to the wall with nowhere to go.
Like a tennis ball, Dr Barbhaiya, with extensive global experience in
handling diverse aspects of drug discovery and development at
Bristol-Myers Squibb, USA and leading a team of over 900-strong
scientists at Ranbaxy, bounced back with the same or greater force. The
support and encouragement of his colleagues - Dr Kasim Mookhtiar and
Sanjiv Kaul - led to the setting up of Advinus Therapeutics in 2005.
“I started Advinus at the right time, right environment; backed by the
right set of people,” says Dr Barbhaiya, who left India as a student to
the UK to pursue doctoral studies, over 35 years ago. This graduate in
biochemistry from MS University, Baroda, later landed in the US
following the advice of his guide in the UK. “Hence the journey for
Advinus became smooth; to achieve the goal to explore novel targets in
selected diseases areas with no API, no generics, no manufacturing, no
sales and marketing experience”.
Advinus' Pharma Development Bangalore operation, located on a
8-acre campus with 220,000 sq ft of modern facilities, offers
end-to-end pre-clinical to early clinical development platform for
pharma product development
The leadership team (with over 160 years of combined working
in large pharma companies in the US) and the Board, also shares
the same mindset. Advinus, as Dr Barbhaiya adds, is the abbreviation
for “Advantage India US.” In a short span of five years, the company
has achieved many milestones. Advinus has emerged as a leading partner
of choice for multinational pharma companies like Merck, Novartis,
Johnson & Johnson, Genzyme, DNDi besides others; for drug discovery
“I really did not have a plan to turn an entrepreneur. Stars were
aligned for me to do something out of the ordinary,” says Dr Barbhaiya,
commenting on his entrepreneurial journey. This only son of a physician
from Ahmedabad (Gujarat) is a late bloomer as an entrepreneur, starting
Advinus when he was in his early fifities. “Pharmaceutical research and
development was never India's forte”, he says. He did not know that he
would move to India.
Recalling his career at Bristol-Myers-Squibb from 1980, he calls them
the fantastic 21 years that gave him over two decades of highly
productive stints in the industry. During that time, Dr Barbhaiya was
actively developing drugs in-house in many areas like antirectoviral,
a number of drugs for AIDS, cancer, depression and anxiety,
hypertension and congestive heart failure (CHF), diabetes besides many
infectious diseases. He is proud to say that during that time,
the company launched many drugs. He is also one of the rare industry
professionals who has authored nearly 150 scientific research papers.
Although he never thought of returning to India, the changes taking
place in BMS during 2000, led him to opt for an early retirement, at
the age of 49; and start consulting services. He could not resist the
offer from Ranbaxy Laboratories; and moved to India in 2002, along with
a couple of former colleagues - Dr Kasim Mookhtiar and Sanjiv Kaul. He
joined Ranbaxy Laboatories as president of R&D, and led a team of
over 900 professionals involved in generic, drug delivery, herbal and
innovation-driven new drug research and development activities. During
his short tenure of two years, Ranbaxy Laboratories announced the first
and major partnership deal with a global pharmaceutical major, GSK for
drug discovery work.
The state-of-the-art facility
in Pune, Advinus Drug Discovery,
develops its own drug candidates to out-license them at preclinical or
Dr Barbhaiya says, “It was Kasim and Sanjiv who supported and
me to consider taking the risk of becoming an entrepreneur with no
platform for backup. A major factor that Dr Barbhaiya admits, in the
way for him to turn an entrepreneur is the support by Tata Group as
promoters to the venture, Advinus Therapeutics, that came unexpectedly.
The decision was made, and there was no looking back. The company got
off to a start with the logo designed by Dr Barbhaiya's daughter,
Puja, a fashion designer based in the US. Even now, his family is based
in the US and he shuttles between New Jersey, and the cities of
Bangalore and Pune, where the research facilities of the company are
Dr Barbhaiya recalls that a phone call from the Tata Group came at a
time when he was almost closing the deal with a venture capital firm;
and Advinus got a whole new dimension. “The elements of the business
plan of Advinus played a crucial role in establishing partnership
with Tata Group,” says Dr Barbhaiya giving credit to the Tata's support
to drug discovery; and investment into the knowledge-based industry,
besides the incredible visionary leadership within the Tatas.
Stepping untrodden path
Advinus with 470 employees, is a company created with a vision – of not
entering the field that 15 other companies are into. “We choose to
create a drug development center where we can do all regulatory
requirements for IND. To put a molecule into human beings, we are the
only company with this kind of bandwidth,” describes Dr Barbhaiya.
Advinus currently has six-seven programs, and aspires for 12-14 in the
near future; to enhance drug discovery in a very big way. Dr Barbhaiya
adds, “Advinus works on non-validated targets”.
Of the success milestones, Dr Barbhaiya states that Advinus is a
company with many firsts – to conduct toxicology studies INDs have been
filed in the US and Canada besides other countries; also, a two-year
carcinogenous study with a US-based company; it's molecule gk-001 has
been worked from discovery to human studies; and is the only molecule
for which 100 percent IND work has been done in India. “We are very
proud that we have the 100 percent made in India molecule.” Among the
other notable firsts are that Advinus is the first partner for Merck;
it is also the first company to work on R&D in neglected diseases –
particularly those significant to India.
Inspired by his grandfather's words: “I should play a game to win it
and try not to lose it.” Dr Barbhaiya admits that a major factor for
success of Advinus as a company is the senior team. In today's world,
it is a big deal for the senior team to remain intact. He shares that
many senior employees of Advinus have moved to India not to make a
living – having left behind successful careers in the US. They are here
to make a difference to India's pharmaceutical R&D.
Sharing the vision for Advinus for the next five years, Dr Barbhaiya
says, “Having the senior team intact, giving fresh thought to the next
phase of growth to go leaps and bounds (for which we may look for a
strategic investor from outside); achieve turnover of $40-50 million –
not by entering manufacturing, but by building more capabilities.”
“The dream of Advinus could not have been fulfilled without Dr Kasim
Mookhtiar, Sanjiv Kaul; Homi Khusrokhan, managing director, Tata
Chemicals; Dr Venkat S Sohoni, managing director, Rallis India; R
Gopalakrishnan, executive director, Tata Sons; and Kishor A Chaukar,
managing director, Tata Industries,” admits Dr Barbhaiya. “Their
passionate commitment was crucial in creating Advinus. Their tireless
and sustained support made it possible to bring Advinus where it is
today,” concludes Dr Barbhaiya.
“Rashmi as a person – is
large-hearted, warm, caring, emotional, meticulous, organized and a
commanding personality. Rashmi as a professional - tremendous
self-belief, well respected, passionate about research, face of
Advinus, and today's poster boy for innovative pharma research in India”
, MD, ChrysCapital Investment Advisors
“Dr Barbhaiya is a
brilliant blend of science and business; and is
wonderful to talk to. His desire to discover new molecules is backed by
a thorough scientific knowledge and a passion to prove that one can do
this from India”
, CEO, Ocimum Biosolutions
“Dr Rashmi has brought
multinational experience and expertise he
developed in the US to India. Through Advinus, he has been effectively
translating his learnings, to deliver the India advantage; and culture
to meet the global needs”
, CMD, Biocon
“During the five years that
I have known Dr Barbhaiya, I had the
opportunity to learn from him science, drug discovery business and even
HR! He brings with him a unique style of management; comprising
professionalism of the West and seamlessly merging it with personalized
flavor of Indian style. He has led from the front on many initiatives;
and the noteworthy among them is his value for ethics and integrity. In
every employee survey, we have seen that our employees have rated
highly Advinus' culture of ethics and integrity”
, VP & Head (Human Resources), Advinus
“I know Dr Barbhaiya for
over 15 years as scientist, colleague, mentor
and friend. Our professional lives have been inextricably linked during
this period, starting with my joining BMS in 1992; to our current
collaboration at Advinus. Rashmi is a dynamic leader. He is one of the
gifted people who is charismatic, a person who attracts others by his
sheer personality. This charisma allows him to engage and interact with
people who are best at what they do”
-Dr Kasim Mookthiar
, CSO & Executive VP (Drug Discovery),
“Dr Barbhaiya has a unique,
distinctive and effective style of
leadership. He is a visionary and creative leader. He communicates
opinions, facts, thoughts in a very open transparent and honest manner.
He has the unique ability to convey key messages with a “one-liner
anecdote” to hone on the bottom line. He speaks out openly on all
issues while supporting his team. Above all, he holds the highest
standards for ethics and integrity”
-Dr Nimish Vachharajani
, Senior VP & Head (Pharmaceuticals
& Agrochemical Development), Advinus
Key successes in drug discovery
Discovery of a novel molecule for treatment of type 2 diabetes on a new
target in pre-clinical development (in partnership with a large pharma)
which is now in phase I clinical trials – A Glucokinase Activator and
other initiatives include:
♦ Promising compounds for IBD, asthma/COPD and Parkinson's disease that
could be ready for IND enabling studies in current/next fiscal.
♦ A neglected disease initiative to address the unmet medical needs of
“Kala Azar” with DNDi.
Key successes in development
♦ A client base of about 80 global pharmaceutical, biotechnology and
♦ First company in India to establish services in regulatory
toxicology, DMPK and safety pharmacology; and also to develop IND
packages for clinical trials initiation in the US, Canada, Germany,
France and other countries.
♦ Developed the first internal molecule for clinical studies and
enabled the identification of the second candidate – first molecule
discovered and fully developed in India is undergoing clinical trials.
your dreams, believe in yourself”
To create a name like the IT industry for pharmaceutical R&D in
India; win respect and achieve success. We want to make a difference to
India's pharmaceutical R&D. We have felt great and happy about the
success of our competitors.
Q How do you
treat your employees?
When they fail, I do not crucify them as long as the failure is not
because of negligence. We believe in team work. As individuals we are
great, but collectively we fall apart. Managing a team by striking a
good balance is a sure way to success in any business.
Q How do you
describe your role at Advinus?
I soften targets (potential clients). Then the other team members move
in to negotiate the deals. The best way to describe my role is that I
am like the air force. After air strikes, the ground level battalion
has to move in to win the battle.
Q Who can
become an entrepreneur?
For a person who is capable, success will follow. I never aspired
to become a CEO. I did my work and became what I am.
Q What words
of motivation would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?
Pursue your dreams; believe in yourself. Have the right concept and
ideas; and most importantly, the ability to articulate your ideas. Then
success is sure to come your way.
Q How do you
see the Indian biotechnology industry in the past 10 years and now?
I have profound respect for outstanding work that has been done; the
never-say-die spirit of Indians; entrepreneurial abilities that Indians
have. Regulatory reforms by the Indian government in this area is an
immediate requirement for further growth of the industry.
❖ Narayan Kulkarni in Bangalore