Merging the rigour of research & the passion of entrepreneurship - In conversation with Shiladitya Sengupta, co-founder, Vyome Biosciences
An entrepreneur who is a scientist at the core, is a potent but rare mix. It is not often that you get to see a hard core academician taking to entrepreneurship. Shiladitya Sengupta is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at the Harvard Medical School. Even more impressive is the fact that he has founded 4 companies. Currently at the helm of Bangalore based biotechnology company, Vyome Biosciences, developing best-in-class drugs for dermatology care, Shiladitya has the chance to change the world of dermatology with the innovative products that Vyome is currently making.
Read on to know the interesting journey of academician and entrepreneur Shiladitya Sengupta, how he built Vyome Biosciences and his future plans for the company.
From academics to entrepreneurship – Why not?
Academics and entrepreneurship are not always associated with the same person; so we asked Shiladitya what made him take to entrepreneurship, assuming that he was no longer into academia. He said, “So basically I’m still an academician. Starting up doesn’t mean that you have to quit academia. At Harvard or any other premier educational institution, most academicians have started up companies. It all stems from the fact that we want to give back something to society; entrepreneurship is just an extension of that. This isn’t prevalent in India but we definitely need more of this. I believe that society can be changed with science. I’m in entrepreneurship because I want to take science forward in a way in which it will benefit society.”
Shiladitya is a serial entrepreneur. He shared, “I have 3 companies other than Vyome. The biggest learning experience that I have got from those companies is in getting the right kind of people. Everything that you do in life is dependent on the people involved and for success you’ve got to have the right kind of people working with you. My second learning was that you have to trust people with their abilities. To innovate, you have to give individuals a certain degree of freedom.”
The birth of Vyome
Shiladitya’s philosophy of merging academics and entrepreneurship is evident in the way Vyome biosciences started – “At least 30% of India is diabetic and a large population within this 30% develops foot ulcers as a result. Today the only treatment available is amputation. India is just one of many such markets. I decided to work on a product that would treat these ulcers, using a wound healing protein that I had been researching. We looked at our core strengths, analysed the market needs and potential benefits that we could offer. We wanted to make a business around innovation driven by pure sciences. To do this, we went on a global hunt for talent in this field and that’s how Vyome came to be.” He added that Vyome is now a team of 25 people, mostly comprising top notch scientists from research labs of premier institutions across the world. It aims to build next generation products for which it has already developed technology. Vyome will now be looking to roll out these products into the market by the end of 2013.
Shiladitya emphasizes that Vyome Biosciences is an R&D company. He says, “We give research a lot of importance. We’re an innovation driven business and to be innovative you need to have a strong R&D establishment. This is even more important when you’re taking on products that have been in the market for over 50 years and are worth billions of dollars.”
On challenges and opportunities
There is very little that the business class of India knows about biosciences companies. Moreover, going by how few of them actually make it, the sector might even come across as a risky one. Shiladitya, however states the converse. He says, “Dermatology as a business sector is pretty safe. The only thing that you have to do is to come up with a better product than what is available. In fact new companies have an advantage here because you’re competing against very old products, so there is a good scope for disruption. To put it in perspective, it’s like taking a smartphone and comparing it to a telephone from the 1950s.”
Shiladitya does however state that marketing and partnerships are some of the main problems that new dermatology companies face. Reaffirming his faith in the opportunities in the sector, he says, “It all boils down to having a better product. Considering that 50% of the world has dandruff and 20% has acne, there is a huge opportunity.” Most of the products in the market are very old. Something like dandruff is an 8 Billion dollar market worldwide. Also products like Head & Shoulders shampoo were launched in the 1950s and there has been little or no innovation after that. This showed us an opportunity. We started looking at the cause of conditions like dandruff and began working on preventive measures. The aim was to make a next generation treatment. For example, to identify what causes dandruff, we carried extensive research on the oil that the human body secretes and implemented our inferences in the form of meta-products.
On bringing investors on board and the Kalaari experience
Prior to the investment from Kalaari Capital, the initial costs of running Vyome Biosciences were sustained through a seed investment from Navam Capital, whose former Managing Director is one of the Vyome’s founders. “When we were looking to raise Series A funding, we knew that Kalaari would be one of the funds that we’d go to. They have a strong reputation of being entrepreneur friendly. We did speak to others, but Kalaari was always our first choice.”
Shiladitya lauds Kumar Shiralagi from Kalaari capital as an ideal addition to his Board of Directors. He says, “In the industry, Kumar is known for his integrity and his ability to scale companies from scratch. Kumar has deep expertise in running businesses and building up organizational structures. We have regular strategy sessions with Kumar. In addition to contributing a lot, he also comes across as very committed. That is what you want from an investor and with Kumar, there’s nothing more that we can ask for.”
Salary matters – On hiring
Shiladitya’s 25 member team at Vyome has the distinction of having some impressive scientists who come from reputed educational institutions around the world. Research scholars from Cambridge, Stanford and the Albert Einstein School of Chemistry now work at Vyome. Shiladitya has a very simple formula for accomplishing this task. He says, “We pay 30 – 40% higher than the industry standard. Of course our demands are a little more than the industry standard as well, but again, that’s a norm at startups. The salary that you pay plays a major role in retention as well. I also believe that, ‘if you pay peanuts, you will get monkeys’. So if you’re looking to hire and retain the best in the world, you should also be ready to pay accordingly.”
Shiladitya believes that the Indian Biosciences education system is quite strong, but admits that there are some problems as well. He says, “I think we’re very strong theoretically and there are centres of excellence which produce top quality resources, but I don’t think it has reached a critical mass of people as yet. Experts from India are too few. If you take the really outstanding scientists in India and add them up, they will be lesser than what the Department of Biology or Biotechnology at MIT produces every year. This is a big limitation. We really need to crank up the number of high quality graduates that come out of our country and part of what we do at Vyome is just that. By bringing back the best biotechnology minds back to India, we’re not just building a great company but we’re building an ecosystem. The way to bring them back is to offer them similar salaries to what they are getting paid in the US. There are few people who would come back for only patriotic reasons. At the end of the day, salary does matter.”
Ask questions, answering won’t suffice – On changing the training philosophy of biosciences in India
Shiladitya makes a very profound distinction in the learning philosophy of India when compared to the rest of the world. He says, “There are many reasons why we’re theoretically sound but lack when it comes to putting that theory into practice. The biggest reason is in the way we train our graduates. We are very good at answering questions when asked. But when you want to lead and innovate, it’s about asking the right kind of questions. Our system is built around the philosophy of making students good at answering questions asked to them. This limits them. Asking the right kind of questions is the more difficult thing to do and our education systems need to be modified to cater to that.”
On team and culture
Shiladitya describes the culture at Vyome as very open and flat. He says, “Of course there are hierarchies in terms of decision making, but we have made an earnest attempt to make the leadership team very accessible. Anyone can walk into any of the co-founders’ offices whenever they want to.” Vyome also lays a lot of emphasis on innovation, by allowing employees 20% of their working time for their own pursuits. He says, “This is something that most industry leaders do and I think everyone who’s aiming to be a leader should follow suit. We even run monthly contests for our employees where we reward the most innovative idea.”
Entrepreneurship doesn’t corrupt science, it’s the most logical extension
To Shiladitya, entrepreneurship is the most logical extension of science. He says, “Most of us follow science to satisfy our curiosity, but the next step to that is to take our learnings and help others; entrepreneurship is the best way to do it. A lot of people, especially in Indian academia think that entrepreneurship corrupts science. We need to get out of this. If you go back in history, you’ll see that prominent Indian scientists like Vikram Sarabhai and C V Raman have had companies of their own. So it is possible to do both.To me, my lab is of the highest importance at my organization. Every day we put in long hours in the lab and all the products that are going to fuel our business tomorrow will be coming from there. It is just like a research project, which you want to do for the benefit of the world. I think that more people should do this.”
“We live in a very materialistic society where even academics is done in lieu of a job. If more people don’t take up the route of entrepreneurship, who is going to inspire our youth to grow out of this run of the mill life? We are a very services oriented country; I think the next step is to build a healthy products ecosystem. For this, we need more scientists and technologists to take to entrepreneurship,” adds Shiladitya.
For someone who came across as a very pragmatic person, Shiladitya’s sign off note underscored this pragmatism. We asked him what drives him to keep it going day after day, and he said, “You know, we want to build products with a global impact and that hasn’t happened from India yet. We’ve got the belief and ability to do this and doing it from India is going to make it that much more special.” Perhaps, it is this kind of passion that will continue to drive the best minds to take the leap of faith into the ocean of entrepreneurship.