labels: ehrlich laboratory private limited, pharmaceuticals
Venkatachari Jagannath
03 May 2004
Chennai: After skilfully negotiating blind turns and pitfalls, Indra Subramanyam, managing director, has set the sixty-six year old Ehrlich Laboratory Private Limited on a straight track.

The former Sholavaram car racer has now taken the road to transform her diagnostic lab into a clinical research organisation (CRO). CROs are the ones who do the clinical trials for drug companies.

Soon Ehrlich will start testing the blood samples of several thousands of school-going teenage girls to check for metabolic syndrome. The study results will be sent to a US organisation, which in turn will be used by a pharma company to decide on the development of a drug to treat diabetes. Talks are also on with a couple of other US drug makers.

“Clinical research is the logical progression for us,” says Subramanyam. Towards that she is taking the necessary steps like applying for accreditations with organisations like the College of American Pathologists and others.

Within India, Ehrlich does some work for the Bangalore based CRO, Lotus Lab Pvt Ltd and pharma companies like Tablets India Limited, Orchid Chemicals & Pharmaceuticals Limited and others for their drug development programme. It hasn’t always been a smooth ride for Subramanyam, who got into the driver’s seat only in 1997. Before that, this genial B.Sc Maths graduate didn’t greatly involve herself in the lab activities.

But her husband, Dr. B Subramanyam’s sudden death changed her life as she was forced to assume the mantle. The home front was taken care of by her mother- in- law and fortunately the two children Sandhya and Dr. Shravan (a national level swimmer), were both grown up.

Being a non-medical person was a major stumbling block during the initial days. Sensing an opportunity, some unscrupulous doctors started demanding commission to refer patients to Ehrlich.

"I decided to continue with the tradition and reputation built by my father- in- law and my husband and refused the kickback demands. That stance resulted in a 25 per cent downslide in business. In addition, vested interests started floating rumours about us and that in turn resulted in low walk ins by patients," Subramanyam reminisces.

It was then that she decided to stop at the curb and take stock. Subramanyam stopped the construction of an additional 23,000 sq.ft facility midway.

It was at that crucial period when she was looking for directions that Suresh Krishna, chairman and managing director, Sundram Fasteners Limited showed the first signpost.

Being a non-technical person need not be a handicap in business, said Krishna, and he cited himself as an example for running an engineering company successfully. The nuts and bolts of a successful business hinges on quality and reliability, he advised her.

That made her undergo quality certification and in 2000 Ehrlich became the first diagnostic lab in the country to sport the ISO tag. Subsequently, Ehrlich also got the quality certifications from National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL) and others.

Two other people who she recalls with gratitude are the late industrialist N P V Ramasamy Udayar and management consultant Thilak Shankar. "Udayar guided me on the financial aspect while Shankar advised on lab management."

Learning the business nuances soon, she upgraded the lab into a full fledged healthcare testing facility by installing equipment like a treadmill, x-ray, scans, etc. while completing the remaining part of the building.

The ISO tag brought in several leading corporate accounts for carrying out preventive testing for their employees / workers. All private life insurers send their prospects to Ehrlich for the health check before accepting the first premium.

Meanwhile, competition turned very severe with the mushrooming of labs in every nook and corner. Unlike the other city based Lister Metropolis that manages the Malar Hospital lab, Ehrlich does not have any major hospital accounts. In addition, Metropolis is on the expansion mode, acquiring and opening new labs and getting into the clinical trial space.

But Subramanyam is not interested in expanding her lab network. "Focusing on expanding to other cities through owned labs or franchisee managed ones will divert our attention of becoming a CRO fast," she reasons.

She is waiting for her son, Dr. Shravan, to return from the US after completing his graduate degree in health management at Cornell University, to take over.

Outside business, Subramanyam is an active Rotarian. She is also an executive committee member of Narada Gana Sabha, Chennai, Mylapore Academy, a fifty year old social and cultural association, and an executive committee member of Tamil Nadu State Aquatic Association.

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