In 1984, one of the world’s most shocking industrial disasters occurred at Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. A poisonous gas called methyl isocyanate leaked from the gas pipeline at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant. The exposure to the toxic gas claimed the lives of thousands of people and inflicted several others with long term health defects [1]. In the wake of the debilitating disaster, the Indian government passed the Environment Protection Act of 1986. The act lays down the rules to protect and improve the environmental conditions in India by preventing pollution and regulating the activities of various industries [2]. In addition to posing a severe threat to human life as in the Bhopal Gas tragedy, the presence of chemical pollutants in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we consume is exposing us to many diseases day after day.

If not chemical technology, then what?

A sustainable solution to treat chemical pollutants is the adoption of bio-enzymes. Bio-enzymes have an incredible capacity to rejuvenate contaminated water. In fact 1000 litres of water can be decontaminated by only 1 litre of bio-enzymes, purifying the water while maintaining environmental sustainability. The production and usage of bio-enzymes was further advanced by biotechnology. Biotechnology makes use of biological processes that exist in nature to aid in various industrial processes such as production of detergents, fertilizers, pesticides and so on. The process expels considerably low amounts of pollutants into the environment [3]. Dr. Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, founder and Chairperson, Biocon, has been a pioneer in developing bio-enzymes, and eventually putting India on the global map with respect to biotechnology. Dr Kiran started her journey as a brewer, which was a strictly male-dominated area at the time. Treading through difficulties like gender discrimination, she persevered and worked hard to switch her focus to start an enzyme technology related company, which grew in to the billion dollar enterprise that Biocon is today. She recalls "I started my business by developing enzyme technologies, which at that time was really about greening businesses moving from chemical technologies to enzyme technologies, which was an idea way ahead of its time. There was no concept of sustainable development or eco-friendly technologies at that time. And pollution was the last thing on people's mind. So I think I was trying to basically peddle a technology that nobody found that important to invest in, at least in the ‘80s and ‘90s."

A leap towards sustainability and gender equality

Twenty years into her industrial journey, Dr. Kiran saw another potential of enzyme technology. She decided to use her expertise in biotechnology to make biopharmaceuticals that could bring down cost of treatment for chronic diseases like diabetes and cancer. She wanted to make these expensive biological drugs affordable and accessible to large number of patients who found these expensive imported drugs beyond their reach. In 2004, Biocon commercialised the first biosimilar insulin using the yeast Pichia pastoris and succeeded in reducing the market price of insulin in India [4,5]. Dr. Kiran overcame barriers that society imposed on women in business and entrepreneurial roles, took on an unconventional career path, and made the best out of it. She has proven that being kinder to the environment and being mindful of our future generations can indeed reap success.

Do you want to learn more about the inspiring journey of Dr. Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and her company Biocon? Listen to the full podcast on Word to the WISE.