Hyderabad: In March 1989, in the early stages of his 20 years in India as an entrepreneur, Suven Lifesciences Ltd chairman and chief executive officer Venkat Jasti set himself the goal of discovering new drugs.
Valued partnerships: Venkat Jasti, chairman and CEO of Suven Lifesciences. After a research tie-up with Eli Lilly in September 2006, the company has joined hands with five leading global pharma firms. Bharath Sai / Mint
“But entrepreneurial inspiration sometimes hits in strange ways and at strange times,” says Jasti, who had to go on altering his business models and goals to suit changing conditions.
Because the business environment back in 1989 wasn’t conducive to drug discovery, Suven had to “jump onto the bandwagon of generics like everyone else.”
Next, Suven took up a business model called CRAMS, or contract research and manufacturing services, to be in the supply chain of global pharmaceutical innovators during their clinical phase of drug development. In 2005, coinciding with the regime of intellectual property protection in India, Suven successfully tried its second business model called DDDSS, or drug discovery and development support services.
Aimed at achieving its original goal of discovering drugs, Suven adopted its third business model called CRP, or collaborative research partnership, in September 2006 by entering an agreement with Eli Lilly and Co. Suven has now become a preferred drug discovery partner for several global pharma firms, says Jasti.
He started his Indian pharmaceutical venture with Rs1 crore equity and Rs1 crore debt. After two decades, Suven reached a size of Rs300 crore by market value and Rs140 crore by revenue in the fiscal to last March.
Jasti was always keen on entrepreneurship because he didn’t want to work under someone else. After graduating in pharmacy in India, he left for the US to do his master’s degree and started a chain of pharmacy stores in New Jersey. He sold his pharmacy chain in 1988 and moved back to India, where he zeroed in the following year on pharmaceutical manufacturing with a focus on specialty chemicals.
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“Now, after a journey of 20 years, we have become a full fledged biopharmaceutical company from drug discovery to development to manufacturing, minus marketing,” says Jasti.
Elaborating on the “minus” part, he says, “This is because we always collaborate with a particular pharmaceutical company for contract research or clinical trials or drug discovery or manufacturing.”
In 2003, he moved into drug discovery activity, specializing in central nervous system (CNS) disorders, which is a difficult therapeutic area.
“In disorders such as low or high blood pressure, you can have quantitative measurements. But in CNS disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and depression, physical measurements are not possible,” he says.
About the reasons for choosing CNS disorders as the focus area for drug discovery, Jasti says, “We didn’t want to be a run-of-the-mill kind of a pharma company and we were aware that being a small company, we cannot take up research in too many therapeutic areas.”
The other key reason from the business perspective wass that the CNS therapeutic segment is the second fastest growing global pharma segment after oncology, said Jasti.
CNS disorders account for about 35% of the total disease burden in the world’s seven largest pharmaceutical markets, with sales estimated at over $100 billion, out of the total global pharma market sales of $780 billion, Jasti said.
But does Suven Lifesciences have the financial muscle to take up drug discovery on its own at a time when global pharma giants are finding it difficult?
“No, we don’t have the required financial muscle,” admits Jasti. “We have realized it and adopted a collaborative strategy for drug discovery, which not only enables us to have funds but also work as risk mitigation measure.”
Suven Lifesciences roped in Eli Lilly as its collaborator for CNS research in September 2006. Subsequently, the company joined hands with five leading global pharma companies to offer them services in their drug discovery programmes, which will enable it to generate revenue.
Jasti says Suven now has 10 molecules in various stages of pre-clinical development for CNS disorders such as Alzheimer’s, depression, dementia, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and various other psychiatric and neurological syndromes and disorders.
Jasti hopes to achieve success either from Suven’s own molecules or collaborative research molecules in the next 12-18 months, which will improve the financial strength of the company. He expects to license out one of Suven’s molecules either next year or after completing the proof-of-concept studies in 2012. The first molecule, he hopes, would hit the market by 2014, giving the company access to revenue in the form of milestone payments and royalties.