The reason

Drug discovery is not like the transistor or integrated circuits technology where huge foundries are required and the catch-up phase is big.

A certain starkness marks the entrance to Curadev Pharma Private Limited. Freshly painted, the walls are bare; the reception desk is unmanned. The company does mostly science and doesn’t need a front desk; not yet. Ask them about the emptiness and co-founders Arjun Surya and Manish Tandon look at the ceiling and wistfully discuss how the AstraZeneca headquarters in Sweden had the hanging molecular structure of Omeprazole, the multi-billion-dollar anti-ulcer drug, greet visitors. “Maybe, one day, when one of our molecules becomes successful, we’ll have its molecular structure (mural) hanging here,” they say, almost in unison.

On the outskirts of Noida in Uttar Pradesh, flanked by hosiery makers, Sector 83 is not the best place to do drug discovery, the riskiest venture in life sciences. But for Surya these externalities are trivial. On the contrary, he asks you to take a thought experiment: “Why would anybody fund drug discovery? It’s a stupid business model. I may have to make 600 molecules before I find one that clicks. One molecule costs one lakh to make.”

That’s pricey. So they funded it themselves. By selling their house. And when they were still on the brink in April 2015, Roche came calling with a deal that paid $25 million upfront and had another $530 million promised in milestone payments. One of those payments is expected this year. So is a new, potentially large, licensing opportunity as Curadev’s next molecule readies for big pharma.

Will it hit the jackpot again? No one, except Glenmark, which has a sizeable generics business as its mainstay, has done this before. “Science is a very tough taskmaster,” says Surya. “You can’t wing it because you’ve done or seen it before. It’s very humbling.”

And how it humbled

Medium-built and greying in his early fifties, Surya comes across as a mix of sincerity, caution, and a devil-may-care attitude, in equal parts. Somewhat contradictory, you’d think. His entrepreneurial venture defies logic no less. Coming from a background in contract research, he partnered with Tandon, who had experience in generics manufacturing. The two started a company that would discover new drugs. A gamble no one has pulled off. Not in India.

For Surya, this was what he had returned to India for in 1999, after spending 13 years in the US.

Back then, as he was making up his mind, Surya came across an interview of Parvinder Singh, the former managing director of Ranbaxy, on Doordarshan. Singh’s pitch to young professionals was: If you are interested in drug discovery, come to Ranbaxy.

AUTHOR

Seema Singh

Seema has over two decades of experience in journalism. Before starting The Ken, Seema wrote “Myth Breaker: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and the Story of Indian Biotech”, published by HarperCollins in May 2016. Prior to that, she was a senior editor and bureau chief for Bangalore with Forbes India, and before that she wrote for Mint. Seema has written for numerous international publications like IEEE-Spectrum, New Scientist, Cell and Newsweek. Seema is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a MacArthur Foundation Research Grantee.

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