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Catching Up With Subu Kota

Ranjani Saigal

Subu Kota, the President and CEO of “The Boston group” is a man with a “can do“ attitude who has been successful in a wide variety of fields including IT, Biotech, E-learning, Real Estate and even running a restaurant. His first venture was in 1970, when he raised a quarter million dollars to develop a time sharing application. Since then he has founded several successful companies including Shanta Biotechnics, a Biotech company in Hyderabad, India and “The Boston Group”, an E-learning company based in Northborough, MA. Mr. Kota holds a Master’s Degree in Computer Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. Kota spoke to Lokvani about his passion for community service and how he uses entrepreneurship successfully to make a measurable impact.

Lokvani: How did you get started as an entrepreneur? What was the road that led to the creation of Shanta Biotechnics and the Boston Group?

Kota: In 1970, a year into graduate school at the University of Rochester, there was a need for time sharing applications. It was the days of the mini computers and such applications helped bring the cost of computing down so that companies could afford it. I raised a quarter million dollars for building this application. It was a successful venture. But later I could sense the demise of the mini computer. I sold the company in time and went to work for Data General. While working at Data General, I decided to get into real estate. I owned about 180 apartments at one time. Later I also dabbled in the restaurant business. “Pondicherry” was the first upscale Indian restaurant in the Boston area. But we realized after a few years of success with these business that I needed more family time. Our children were young then and these businesses were consuming a lot of energy. So I decided to sell these businesses. Later I got into the outsourcing, Biotech. and E-learning

Lokvani:You started Shanta Biotechnics at a time when Biotech was not a buzzword. It was not your field. What motivated you to start this company?

Kota: Shanta Biotechnics was started for a very personal reason. My elder brother died of Hepatitis-B. At that time, I had no idea about the disease. As I learnt more about it, I found that it is very prevalent in India. There is no cure but there is a vaccine that can help prevent it. Unfortunately at that time the cost for the vaccine was high and this prevented its wide spread use in countries like India. I wanted to do something to prevent others from dying of this disease in India. I felt producing a lowcost would help make a significant impact. I started Shanta Biotechnics with a simple vision – to produce the vaccine at $1 a shot. I am happy that we have achieved this goal. Shanta Biotechnics became a reality with the help of funding provided by the foreign minister of Oman who owns 50% equity and the rest by the Indian team.

Shanta Biotechnics has achieved pioneer status in developing and commercializing a recombinant DNA-based human healthcare product - the Hepatitis-B vaccine - in India.

But at Shanta Biotechnics we do not stop with just manufacturing the vaccine. We are also very actively engaged in creating awareness programs to educate people about the disease. We also donate 10% of our products.

Lokvani:What are the future goals for Shanta Biotechnics?

Kota: We hope that in the near future may witness more achievements from Shanta: major generics like Human Insulin and Streptokinase; Therapeutic Antibodies for lung carcinoma, melanoma and cardiovascular diseases; Diagnostic Kits, new vaccines against Hepatitis-C and Hepatitis-E; a new generation vaccine against Hepatitis-B and other innovative biopharmaceuticals.

Lokvani:How does Shanta Biotechnics manage to produce drugs at a fraction of the cost of its US competitors? Is it at the cost of quality?

Kota: Our mission at Shanta is to produce drugs of the highest quality at the lowest cost. We never compromise on quality. Shanta puts into practice a rigorous Quality Management program at its facility. This effort extends beyond finished product testing to an emphasis on calibration and validation.

Features of this program include:

  • Analytical methods validated in accordance with ICH guidelines
  • Testing of water, raw materials, in-process samples, finished products and packing material.
We have the finest state-of-the-art-facility. The quality and cost of our drugs has led to agreement with companies like Pfizer to co-market the drug.

We are able to achieve low cost in India for different reasons. Drug trials required to get FDA approval in the USA is very expensive. It costs almost $150 million. But in India the trials cost only 7 or 8 million dollars. Cost of hiring well trained scientists is also low.

Lokvani: You said Shanta Biotechnics emerged because of a personal goal to improve healthcare in India. It is a very laudable but ambitious goal. Do you think you have accomplished this goal?

Kota: We have created a measurable impact on improving health in India and consequently quality of life in India. I am very pleased about that.

Lokvani:You entered the field of outsourcing when it was not very popular. How did that happen?

Kota: I predicted in 1992 that outsourcing of IT services was bound to happen. Not many believed me then. But I started a global outsourcing company from my basement at that time. It took of in 1995. We now have centers in Singapore, Malaysia, Hyderabad, Korea, China and Indonesia.

Lokvani:How did you get interested in E-Learning?

Kota: I feel education and particularly women’s education is the key to development. Many people for various reasons do not always have access to education. Realities of time and geography often come in the way. Technology is the perfect way to bring education to those who may not be able to access it otherwise. During the SAARS outbreak in Singapore and Hong Kong, the online University was the only one that was open.

The Boston Group offers a full suite of E-Learning solutions, ranging from custom content development and off-the-shelf courseware to software platforms for learning and skills management. We have over 700 clients. Sixty-five universities use our Intralearn platform. We are doing so much to bring training and education to people who would not be able to access it otherwise.

Lokvani:What has been your key to achieving success in a wide variety of areas?

Kota: I pick the right people to do the right job and give them the freedom to do it.

Lokvani:What is the greatest moment in your life?

Kota: I have two great moments. The first was meeting my wife, Virginia, a Cuban refugee who I met during my graduate school. Marrying her has been the best thing I have done. I am out of the country for at least six months of the year. She manages everything while I am gone. She has also taken care of at least 50 – 60 of my relatives from India who we helped settle in the USA.

The second great moment was meeting Bhagwan Sathya Sai Baba. His spiritual guidance has meant a lot to me.

Lokvani:You have made significant financial and in-kind contributions to charities and institutions in India and the United States. How do you decide on the cause you choose to contribute?

Kota: I have always felt that I owe a debt both to America and India for they have done so much for me. I contribute to causes that I think can have tangible results. Here in America I helped raise about 12 million dollars to build the YMCA in Northborough. It is being widely used. I am helping ISW build their India Center which also I hope will be well used. My goal to improve healthcare in India resulted in the opening of Shanta Biotechnics which has resulted in tangible results.

India has given me a first class education at an extremely low price. I always had the desire to bring education to all in India. I particularly feel strongly about women’s education. I think that is the key to development. E-learning would make a big difference and I hope with the expertise at The Boston Group we can make it happen. I should say I use entrepreneurship to make a tangible difference.

Lokvani:In ten years time what changes do you hope to see in India that are directly impacted by your work?

Kota: At this time I have actual data to show that Shanta Biotechnics has made a significant impact on healthcare in India. I hope some of the E-learning projects I have initiated in India will also create such an impact so that development may happen. I am working with Chandrababu Naidu to create a model case for E-Governance which we hope will significantly impact the way government is run. E-Seva centers in Hyderabad are already making life easy for citizens. Better governance can only lead to development.

Mr. Kota spoke about at length about E-learning and E-Governance. We will present that part of the interview in another issue.

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