India special: Vaccines for pennies

By James Randerson WHEN Krishna Ella went to venture capitalists in 1995 he was laughed out of their offices. A molecular biologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he was proposing to make hepatitis B vaccine in India, his native land, for a mere dollar a shot. At the time UK drug firm SmithKline Beecham was selling the product in the west for 20 times that amount. “People thought: there’s no way this guy can produce this vaccine at a dollar,” Ella recalls. Undeterred, he and his marketing manager wife Suchitra Ella sold their houses in America and India, abandoned their US careers and left for Hyderabad to set up their own company. They sank all they owned into the venture, begged money from friends, and finally won backing from an Indian bank. Their company, called Bharat Biotech, now sells the vaccine in developing countries for 28 cents a shot. It owns the second biggest production facility for this vaccine in the world and has an annual turnover of $7.3 million. “Those venture capitalists are kicking themselves now – you bet!” says Suchitra Ella. The pair are typical of highly educated Indian expats who have forged their careers in the west, but are now returning to take advantage of new economic opportunities at home. Their intimate knowledge of western science and business is invaluable, and they are natural risk-takers. After all, this is not the first time in their lives they have made a daunting fresh start. “There is always dogma in science,
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