Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Smart Women Pursuing Smart Science

Image Credit: http://smartsciencetoday.blogspot.in/
A couple of years ago, India celebrated the success of its first Mars mission and I was very excited to see the smiling faces of the women staff of Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) being splashed all over the media. It was a watershed moment as far as the Indian Space Program is concerned. But, more importantly, it shattered stereotypes about space research and Indian women. These are boom times for Indian science. In the last few years, science and technology, as a sector, has been receiving a lot of national spending with a lot of new universities and institutes that promotes science education and research coming up in the near future in India.

One aspect of scientific development in India that comes across as a pleasant surprise is the active participation and representation of women in the field of science and technology. If former Indian president Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was known as the ‘Missile Man’ of India, we have Tessy Thomas who is known as the ‘Missile Woman’ of India. She is the first woman scientist to head a missile project in India. Likewise, we have many more encouraging examples where women have broken the glass ceiling and made a mark in their respective fields. Today, 8 of the Top 10 Banks in India are headed by women and 12% of India’s 5,100 pilots are women.

However, stepping into the male-dominated domain of Indian science is not easy for a woman researcher. Women in science continue to have an incredibly difficult time being treated fairly because of the unfair system and sexism. And I can say this by drawing examples from my own life experience. The mind-set of the society is that women are less capable of understanding science, although all evidence is to the contrary. I faced seemingly insurmountable road-blocks on my path to building Biocon into the enterprise it is today. Initially, I had credibility challenges where I couldn't get banks to fund me; I couldn't recruit people to work for a woman boss. I can credit my success to my education and upbringing that had helped instil a strong sense of self-belief and a never-say-die spirit in me.

In India, women face discrimination when it comes to scientific institutions and science education. A new study by UNESCO outlining the involvement of women in science has some stark figures for India. As per a report by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), 44% of bachelor students are female while 41% get till the doctoral level. The report further states that women researchers show a tendency to work in the academic and government sectors while men dominate the private research sector, which offers better salaries and opportunities for advancement. Moreover, as per a latest report by the World Economic Forum, only 14.3% of science researchers in India are women. The proportion is worse than that in several West Asian countries like Bahrain, where women account for 41.3% of researchers in science.

The Road Ahead

India is aggressively working towards establishing itself as a leader in industrialisation and technological development. The Government of India, through the Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Policy-2013, among other things, aspires to position India among the world’s top five scientific powers. If India has to realise this dream, women have to take a central stage. They need to capitalize on their inherent qualities of compassion, sensitivity, multi-tasking and above all, the inner strength to excel. Coupled with their hard work and perseverance, women can achieve anything they set their minds on.

Kiran Mazumdar - Shaw

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Budget Expands Ambit of Clean India

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has presented a Budget that boasts of several firsts. It is the first time that the railway and general budgets have been merged and planned and non-planned expenditure classification done away with.

I believe the Finance Minister has laid out a very safe budget this year operating with fiscal prudence and staying within his comfort zone. As a result, he has missed out on introducing bold measures that could have spurred non-linear economic growth in the wake of the slowdown on account of demonetisation.
The Budget has a good number of positive measures aimed at offering incentives to different stakeholders, boosting domestic spending and cleansing the country of black money. Budget 2017, presented across 10 key levers, aims to ‘Transform, Energise and Clean’ India. 

Transform, Energise and Clean India

The idea of a clean India has been doing the rounds for quite some time and this year’s Budget has widened the ambit of ‘Swachh Bharat’ from sanitation to cleaning up the financial and political systems. The finance minister has proposed the idea of ‘Transform, Energise and Clean’ India, to energise various sections of the society, especially the vulnerable, in order to unleash their true potential. This is an idea, which, if implemented properly, could yield great dividends for India in the long run.

Push to Rural India

The Budget provides a lot of thrust on development of the farm economy by raising the funding for the rural and agriculture sector by 24%. It talks about increasing the allocation for ‘Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana – Gramin’ from
Rs 15,000 crores to Rs 23,000 crores with a target to complete 1 crore affordable homes by 2019. It also sets a target of 1st May 2018 for achieving 100% rural electrification.

To give people in the rural India access to the Internet, the Budget talks of providing high speed broadband connectivity on optical fibre in more than 150,000 gram panchayats by the end of the next fiscal which will ensure better digital literacy.

The Innovation Fund for Secondary Education to be introduced in educationally backward districts will encourage local innovation, ensure universal access, gender parity and improvement in the quality of education & skill development in rural India.

Better Sanitation and Clean Water Supply

The sanitation coverage in rural India has increased to 60% and in order to improve this further the Budget has proposed incentives for ‘open defecation’ free villages. He has proposed to provide safe drinking water to over 28,000 arsenic and fluoride affected habitations in the next four years as part of a sub mission of the National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP).

Push for Digitalization

Mr. Jaitley’s Budget has sought to strengthen the digital payments model to generate long-term benefits in terms of reduced corruption and greater formalisation of the economy. The Budget tries to encourage a "less-cash" society by capping cash transactions at Rs 3 lakh. It announced the launch of Aadhar Pay, a merchant version of Aadhar Enabled Payment System. Moreover, card readers, finger print readers and iris scanners can now benefit from excise and duty exemptions. However, this will need a bigger push on the digital infrastructure front in order to be inclusive.

Transparency in Political Funding

With an eye on bringing more accountability and transparency in political funding, the finance minister has announced a few measures, which are a welcome development. The innovative concept of electoral bonds proposed by the FM has the potential to change the way political funding is done in our country. The reporting of all donations above Rs 2000 in cash will spur better governance by political parties.


Overall, with this budget, Arun Jaitley has tried to make an attempt at cleansing the nation of black money by bringing in more transparency and accountability with a view to make India an inclusive and equitable society. 

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, CMD, Biocon

Friday, 6 January 2017

Let’s Make Bengaluru Safe Again

I am shocked at the incidents of sexual violence against women in Bengaluru over the past few days. As a Bengalurean I have always been fiercely proud of the city’s reputation as one of the safest places for women in India. So the horrific incidents of women being molested openly in public places came as a rude jolt.

Bengaluru, a modern metropolis with global aspirations, is today unfortunately making global headlines for caveman-like sexual violence directed against women. It is a matter of collective shame that as a society and as citizens of Bengaluru we could neither protect these women nor could nab the culprits immediately. The situation calls for a swift action and exemplary punishment to deter any recurrence in future.

 We Need Policing, Not Politics

It is time for the authorities to confront the fact that we have a very serious law and order situation in our hands. According to the National Crime Records Bureau statistics for 2015, Bengaluru had reported the third highest number of attacks against women with an intent to outrage their modesty from among 53 Indian cities. The brazen manner in which miscreants went about assaulting women at Brigade Road on New Year’s Eve also shows that they had no fear of the law.

Bengaluru was till recently ranked as the best city in India to stay in and a large part of it was because of its liberal, progressive ethos and its reputation as one of India’s safest cities for women. Sadly, Mercer's Quality of Living Survey has ranked Bengaluru a distant third in 2016, behind Hyderabad and Pune.

A repeat of this kind of sexual assaults that have been reported in the last few days will end up permanently tarnishing the city’s image and alienating many who were considering making it their home.

Urgent action is needed to tackle a weak system of law enforcement and policing that leaves women vulnerable. Concerted efforts need to be made to catalyse legislative changes needed for the effective functioning of special courts that can deliver speedy justice to women victims of sexual abuse.

If such criminal activity goes unchecked, it will have serious ramifications for the future. It will not only erode citizens’ faith in the ability of the state to protect them, it will also make global investors nervous.

Stop This Moral Policing

As disturbing as these incidents are, what is equally distressing is that instead of unequivocal condemnation terms like ‘Western culture’, ‘half dress’, ‘late-night partying’ associated with women have come to dominate the narrative. This is dangerous because ‘victim blaming’ not only allows the sexual predators to go scot free but also emboldens them to repeat their offences.

Ironically, the moral police have a lot to say about how women should be dressed but are curiously silent on how men should behave in society. This is reflective of a very regressive male mind-set.

This hypocrisy needs to be called out because it is actually a mask for our society's intolerance towards women emancipation and gender equality. It reflects a deeply parochial mindset and an aversion towards a modern, self-assured woman who dares to break the age old mold of a submissive woman. Women were previously asked to dress in a certain way, but now when they decide to dress differently they are made to feel vulnerable. Women were previously expected to remain quiet, but now when they speak up they are made to feel vulnerable.

What these people need to understand is that the Indian woman has come a long way today and are confidently contributing to business, science, sports and many other fields. And we are not going to surrender our hard-fought social, political and economic independence to disappear behind closed doors just because of the brutish behaviour of some lumpen elements.

Let’s Reclaim Our City

Ordinary Bengalurueans also need to come forward to reclaim the city and protect its women-friendly reputation. We cannot remain apathetic to the subject of sexual assaults and let hoodlums run amok in our city. We need to speak up and protest whenever and wherever we witness sexual misconduct.

The political establishment needs to send out a very unambiguous signal that sexual crimes against women will be dealt with sternly. The police should take a ‘zero tolerance’ attitude towards sexual violence, take swift action whenever any such incidents are reported, name and shame the culprits in public, and make all efforts to ensure that the guilty don’t go unpunished.

Let us all take a pledge to make Bengaluru safe again!

Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, CMD Biocon & Founder President, B.PAC

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

eHealth Push Can Build a ‘Swastha Bharat’ in 2017

2016 was a landmark year for India as demonetisation nudged the country towards an inclusive, less-cash dependant, digital future. In 2017, the government should push for the increased adoption of technology to transform the country’s public healthcare system and ensure a healthy future for all Indians.

The low priority accorded to healthcare in India over the years has resulted in a vicious cycle of disease, death and destitution in the country. Over 63 million Indians slip into poverty every year as high healthcare costs drain them of their financial resources. In fact, poverty caused by expenditure on health has doubled in India in the past 15 years. Surprisingly, this has happened in a period when India’s economy has grown at an average rate of almost 7% annually.

The dual burden of communicable and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) poses a grave socio-economic challenge for the future. It is estimated that NCDs alone will cost India USD 6.2 trillion by 2030.

Encouragingly, however, there are clear signals that the Indian government is intent on pushing the healthcare agenda. The NITI Aayog recently launched a ‘Performance on Health Outcomes’ index to rank various states on their performance on measurable health indicators. 2017 could be the year when the government implements far-reaching measures to build a ‘Swastha Bharat’.

Leveraging Information & Communication Technologies

India has a vast population and thus myriad healthcare challenges. Resource shortages however result in the unavailability of quality healthcare that is affordable and easily accessible. To tackle resource limitations the adoption of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) can provide policymakers in India with a very effective tool for improving healthcare delivery.

A modern ICT-based universal healthcare system will help leverage modern diagnostics in primary healthcare for early detection and treatment, and telemedicine to bridge the deficit of specialists at the primary care level.  They can also be used for cloud based data collection to collate epidemiological and patient centric data to profile and map the disease burden at the level of the smallest administrative unit. 

Comprehensive data bases and disease registries will enable better evaluation of the incidence and diversity of diseases at an epidemiological level and thereby allow for more effective healthcare interventions. This can, in turn, ensure equitable access to healthcare services of assured quality, safety, efficacy and cost effectiveness to all sections of the society.

An ICT-based health delivery model will need strong integration between primary and tertiary care providers. Also, linkages need to be established between health research and national health programs to ensure research findings are leveraged in decision making in public health. 

In this context it is heartening to know that the Indian government is in the process of giving final shape to the proposed National eHealth Authority, which will be the nodal authority responsible for development of an Integrated Health Information System (including Telemedicine and mHealth) in India.

This authority has been envisaged to support the formulation and management of all health informatics standards for India, laying down data management, policies, standards and guidelines in accordance with statutory provisions, promote setting up of state health records repositories and health information exchanges, and to deal with privacy and confidentiality aspects of electronic health records. 

The health ministry is already collecting Aadhaar numbers of patients and linking the unique identity numbers to patient records in a few states, according to media reports. The ministry has also notified the standards for electronic medical records and electronic health records in India. India has already implemented a Health Management Information System to capture public health data across the country.

Ensuring Affordable Healthcare 

Several studies have shown that strategic investment in health systems and the ability to innovate and adapt to resource limitations are among the key attributes that have helped some countries or regions achieve substantially better health outcomes than others at similar levels of development. It is in this context that the adoption of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) can provide policymakers in India with a very effective tool for improving healthcare delivery.

Utilizing the power of ICT & medical technology into the public healthcare sector government can bring in more transparency, efficiency and accountability that can enable a more effective healthcare system. 

Biocon Foundation, the CSR arm of Biocon, has already leveraged the power of technology to take healthcare services to rural and remote areas. It has implemented the unique eLAJ project to deliver evidence-based healthcare for the benefit of communities with poor access to quality healthcare in Karnataka and Rajasthan. Patient-specific health data are captured on the eLAJ electronic medical record system and linked to an individual’s Aadhar. 

The Foundation has also implemented a mobile phone based health (mHealth) platform for early detection, prevention and treatment of oral cancer. This comprehensive, evidence based oral cancer screening program facilitates early detection at the doorstep. By empowering the frontline health worker to conduct cancer screening in a low resource setting, this program has ensured that healthcare reaches remote pockets in a cost-effective manner. By linking oral cancer specialists with the rural population through telemedicine, the mHealth platform has created an opportunity for diagnosis, follow-up and referral.

I truly believe that technology can solve many of the daunting healthcare challenges that we face as a country. 

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, CMD, Biocon

This article first appeared on Business Standard on Jan 2, 2017

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

CRISPR: A Game Changing Technology for a More Equitable Future

Image Credit: Mopic/Alamy Stock Photo

2016 was a landmark year for the biotechnology industry as it was for the first time that the revolutionary CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technique was used in humans. With more human trials involving CRISPR-Cas9 scheduled to be conducted, I believe 2017 will be the year when the technology’s potential to treat human diseases could receive strong clinical validation.

CRISPR-Cas9, which provides scientists with a breakthrough tool to alter or replace the DNA of nearly any living organism with unprecedented precision, is one of the most promising scientific discoveries of the past century. This is why there was considerable excitement in the biotech world when news broke that scientists in China had injected cells modified with CRISPR technology into a patient suffering from an aggressive form of lung cancer. 

In the China trial, scientists used CRISPR technology to edit out genes that were preventing the lung cancer patient’s immune cells from attacking malignant cells. These modified immune cells were then injected back into the patient to help fight back the disease. The trial was seeking to primarily establish the safety of using CRISPR-based genetic modification to fight cancer. Beyond cancer, CRISPR holds the promise of therapeutic applications in tackling hitherto incurable genetic disorders such as haemophilia, muscular dystrophy, sickle-cell anemia and cystic fibrosis, as well as chronic conditions like Type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

The fact that CRISPR has been able to capture the popular imagination is evident from the fact that the four scientists who pioneered the development of the CRISPR gene-editing system were named runners-up for TIME magazine’s 2016 Person of the Year! They lost out to Donald Trump.

Faster, Cheaper & More Efficient

What makes CRISPR such a breakthrough innovation is the fact that it makes gene editing faster, easier, efficient and cheaper than previously available technologies. In time, CRISPR can open the door to affordable therapies that offer the right treatment for the right patient at the right time with the aim of minimizing side effects and maximizing positive outcomes.

Recently, researchers at the Salk Institute demonstrated that CRISPR could be used to partially restore vision in genetically blind rats. The Salk technique represents the first time scientists have managed to insert a new gene into a precise DNA location in adult cells that no longer divide, such as those of the eye, brain, pancreas or heart, offering new possibilities for therapeutic applications in these cells, the study, published in the journal Nature, said.

The rising popularity of CRISPR technology mirrors today’s medical paradigm that is rapidly evolving from treating symptoms to understanding disease at a cellular and genetic level to deliver personalised diagnostics and therapies.

Scientists are even looking at the possibility of using CRISPR technology to grow human organs in animals for transplantation, thus effectively tackling the problem of human donor shortages.

Studies are also ongoing to use CRISPR to manipulate mosquito genes so that they can no longer spread killer diseases like malaria and dengue. Research is also being conducted into the ecological and agricultural applications of CRISPR technology – from helping protect endangered species to developing pest-resistant crops that would help cut down use of toxic pesticides.

Huge Investor Interest

The huge potential of CRISPR has expectedly generated immense investor interest. In 2016 alone, the US witnessed the market debuts of three biotech companies focused on CRISPR technology. Editas Medicine and Intellia Therapeutics raised over USD100 million each through their market offerings earlier this year, according to Bloomberg; while Crispr Therapeutics generated USD56 million through its IPO in October. In fact, companies working on CRISPR technology have raised over USD600 million since 2013 in venture capital and the public markets, researchers at Montana State University had estimated in 2015.

In the US, the first human clinical trials to study the safety of a CRISPR-based cancer treatment are expected to be initiated in 2017. Interestingly, the trials are being funded by The Parker Institute, a new philanthropy created by tech billionaire Sean Parker to battle cancer.

Ensuring Affordable Access

While investments are welcome, the international medical research community needs to be cognizant of the fact that this breakthrough technology is not hijacked by purely commercial interests. The rush to profit from new biomedical discoveries based on CRISPR should not lead to the creation of restrictive patent regimes and monopolistic markets. It should not end up as a model that seeks to sustain super-normal profits by discriminating against patients on the basis of nationality, race and economic status.

The focus should firmly be on using CRISPR to develop therapies that fulfil unmet medical needs while ensuring they are affordable and thus accessible. The needs of poor patients and overall public health should not be sacrificed in favour of developing non-essential treatments for rich patients.

The game-changing CRISPR technology should lead to new paradigm where those needing life-saving medicines get it, at all times and in all places. 

Kiran Mazumdar - Shaw
Dec 19, 2016

Transforming India into a digital society that is less cash dependent

As the debate on the pains and gains of India’s move to demonetize high-value currency notes continues to rage, I firmly believe that the digital payments economy is an idea whose time has come.

History shows us how money as a ‘medium of exchange’ has evolved over several millennia from cowry shells to gold and silver coins to paper currency and now to electronic data.

In his international bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Prof. Yuval Noah Harari notes that today more than 90% of the sum total of money in the world — more than $50 trillion appearing in our accounts — exists only on computer servers as most business transactions are executed by moving electronic data from one computer file to another, without any exchange of physical cash.

“As long as people are willing to trade goods and services in exchange for electronic data, it’s even better than shiny coins and crisp banknotes—lighter, less bulky, and easier to keep track of,” Prof. Harari writes in his fascinating book.

Demonetisation thus offers a transformational opportunity to propel India’s traditional cash-intensive economy to an inclusive, less-cash dependant , digital future.

India Marching Towards a Digital Future

India, like the rest of the world, is witnessing a rapid adoption of digital payments. This can be gauged by the fact that 78% of all consumer payments in 2015 were made in cash down from 89% in 2010 and 92% in 2005, according to a July 2016 report by Google and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

This increasing uptake of electronic payments in India is being driven by deeper mobile phone penetration, concerted policy action by the Reserve Bank of India and government initiatives like Aadhaar and Jan Dhan Yojana.

The Jan Dhan Yojana has brought modern financial services to the doorsteps of 250 million Jan Dhan bank account holders in the heart of rural India.

Aadhaar is now the largest online digital identity platform in the world, with over a billion people registered. Nearly 350 million Indians have Aadhaar-linked bank accounts and there have been over 1 billion transactions involving direct transfer of cooking gas subsidy and wage payments under MNREGA, India's job guarantee program, to beneficiaries’ bank accounts.

Thanks to the Aadhaar Enabled Payment System (AEPS), people in the remote, unbanked villages can now withdraw or deposit money at their doorsteps by providing their Aadhaar numbers and fingerprints on a micro-ATM. They can even make cashless payments to another person with an AEPS account using mobile phones.

Five years ago, the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) launched the Immediate Payment Service (IMPS), which allows instant interbank fund transfers through mobile phones. Today transactions worth Rs 29,000 crore a month are done through IMPS. Recently, NPCI launched the Unified Payment Interface (UPI), which is expected to make payments more efficient through UPI-based mobile apps. For basic feature phone users, NPCI offers the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) technology that allows funds transfers even without internet connectivity.

Financial Inclusion to Get a Push

A recent study, published in the journal Science, provides empirical proof of how mobile-money services can help reduce poverty in developing economies. Access to the Kenyan mobile money system M-PESA increased per capita consumption levels and lifted 194,000 households, or 2% of Kenyan households, out of poverty, according to the study. I believe India can emulate Kenya by building a strong digital payments economy!

A large section of India’s population is still dependent entirely on cash to meet their financial needs - from receiving wages to saving money. As millions of these Indians adopt digital payment methods they will be able to connect to the formal financial sector as customers and suppliers. It will allow the poor, who are typically outside the formal banking system, to build financial histories and thus obtain credit from more formal sources instead of being at the mercy of local moneylenders. Once they realize that their mobile payment history can improve their creditworthiness and help them access cheaper loans, they will willingly use cashless modes of transaction.

It will also allow both banks and non-banking financial companies to reduce their overhead costs on customer data collection as well as increase the reach of their loan services to small value customers. They can then pass on the benefits in the form of low-interest micro-credit to these new customers.

Digital payments will thus provide the poor financial flexibility, financial stability and creditworthiness over the long term.

Digital Payments Is the Way to Go

The digital payments industry in India is a huge opportunity that is waiting to be tapped. The Google-BCG report predicts the industry can touch USD500 billion by 2020, contributing 15% to India’s GDP. Significantly, India is today in a sweet spot: customers want the convenience of digital payments, policymakers are seeking greater financial inclusion and higher transparency, and the infrastructure needed for high-volume, secure digital payments has been put in place. With all the pieces in place, demonetisation provides India a unique opportunity to leapfrog into a brave new digital world! 

Kiran Mazumdar - Shaw
Dec 12, 2016