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  • Writer's picturePradnya Punekar

How a professor became an innovative pharma entrepreneur who is disrupting the pharma industry.

Updated: Jul 25, 2022


This month, we present to you an inspiring story about a bold and change-maker entrepreneur who has done incredible work and innovation in the pharmaceutical field and founded two businesses. She has over 24 years of rich and varied experience and strongly believes that to be a successful entrepreneur one must constantly learn every single day and gain new knowledge from all areas of their business and not restrict to only their area of expertise.

This excellent remark from Oprah Winfrey perfectly describes this month's "Entrepreneur Spotlight" feature- "Don't worry about being successful; but work towards being significant and the success will follow".

Talking of her business philosophy, she says-

“It is very basic – believe in yourself; do the right thing and do it well, no matter how tiny the task at hand; strive for the best but plan for the worse.”-Chitra Lele- Founder-Actu-Real.

The pharmaceutical industry has its origins in apothecaries and pharmacies that provided traditional cures as far back as the 16th century. But the industry as we understand it today really has its origins in the second half of the 19th century. Whilst the scientific revolution of the 17th century had spread ideas of rationalism and experimentation, and the industrial revolution had transformed the production of goods in the late 18th century, the marrying of the two concepts for the benefit of human health was a comparatively late development.

The pharmaceutical and wellness industries have produced major results all across the world. Many important drugs have been developed, and many disorders have been treated in order to cure life-threatening diseases.

This Pharma Entrepreneur's tale is incredibly motivating, and it will fill your heart with courage and your head with a wealth of knowledge and insight. She is a forward-thinking leader who saw an opportunity to meet an industry need and is now effectively driving the company to new heights. She is brave and innovative, and she has reshaped the pharmaceutical business and brought about inspiring improvements. She previously worked for Pfizer, the world's largest pharmaceutical firm.

I had the pleasure of interviewing her a few months ago, and our talk left me feeling inspired, and I learned a lot from her. Read this story to learn how a pharma entrepreneur from Pune, India, who began her career as a faculty member at the University of Minnesota, evolved into an inventive entrepreneur who is making a difference in people's lives all around the world.

Meet Chitra Lele, Founder- Actu-Real. Actu-Real is Chitra’s second business venture. Chitra is a woman of substance who follows a simple ideology in life– believe in yourself and do the right thing. Her forward-thinking and leadership skills have paved the way to a successful business career. Having worked in the pharmaceutical industry, particularly drug development, for 24 years, she is the mind and soul behind the company and was fortunate enough to be joined by an industry veteran as a co-founder.

Chitra graduated from Stanford University with a PhD in Statistics and began her career in teaching and theoretical research. She was a professor at the University of Minnesota, but she quickly realized that she wanted to put her knowledge to use in a practical way. She decided to pursue a career as a cancer epidemiology research biostatistician and worked on projects at Stanford University Medical School and UC San Francisco Medical School.

The Inception

She was a founding member of Sciformix, which was acquired by a huge global firm after around 11 years, and prior to Sciformix, she had founded and grown a new division for a large global company - Pfizer. She grew that new division, which was like a start-up within a major corporation, while working for Pfizer. While it was a success, she couldn't perceive any progress after nine years of running it successfully. She came to a fork in the road where she had two options: take on a new career or establish her own business. She chose the latter. She wanted to see if she could do it on her own and push herself.

After Sciformix was acquired by a large global company, the choice was between a role in the large company or starting a venture on her own to fill an unmet need and help provide solutions in emerging areas. She choose to start her own business and challenge herself and learn along the journey.

While still related to the pharma industry, her current company has a large focus on the commercial side, along with Research and Development. It has also allowed her to foray into a different industry of health insurance as well which further fuels her passion for new and challenging business spaces.

Talking about what inspired her to start a business and become an entrepreneur she says-

“At this stage of my life & career, having a stable job with a fixed income was neither my need nor my interest. Challenging myself to do something different and to focus on somewhat new areas that are not part of my comfort zone was my calling. I also wanted to test myself to see how I could start from scratch and set up a new company all by myself”.

Talking about getting her first project she says-

“Getting the first project is the hardest. And the first one will always come from a strong relationship. Try to go after the low-hanging fruit, i.e., small projects that you can bag based on your own credibility (or of your partners if you have co-founders), even if you don’t have the size and scale of an established company”.

Journey from Employee to Entrepreneur

Chitra worked in academics and semi-academics for the first seven years following graduation, teaching and researching statistics, biostatistics, cancer epidemiology, and mathematics.

Her business career began with the pharmaceutical behemoth Pfizer, where she founded and led a new division within the worldwide corporation. The division seemed like a start-up and quickly grew in popularity; nevertheless, Chitra realised she couldn't continue in the same role.

She had the option of taking on a whole different career within Pfizer or doing something truly entrepreneurial at one time. She selects the latter because she wants to put her leadership skills to the test without the help of a well-known brand.

Her first foray into entrepreneurship came in the form of Sciformix, her company. She opted to take another step forward after the acquisition of Sciformix by a large worldwide firm, after operating it effectively for 11 years with the founders and other senior team members.

Chitra was never one to shy away from new and interesting projects, so she choose to look into a new and rising part of the pharmaceutical industry that focused on the commercial side of things rather than the R&D side that she was familiar with.

Talking about the initial steps she took to start her own business she says-

“One option is to start small, with your own funding, and decide about external funding after there’s adequate visibility of the business. This gives you a lot of freedom in the initial stages of the company to steer it the way you want, alter course as needed etc. On the other hand, if the realization of the business plan requires substantial investment in the first year or two, you may have to consider external sources. Professional investors or angel investors is the next decision to be made. While venture fund/PE investment puts an onus of expectations and financial performance, it also forces you to be prudent, systematic and rigorous in the implementation of your business plan. Being clear about your exit strategy, or if you don’t want to exit, helps determine the route you want to take”.

The Initial days

Every new start-up has its unique set of obstacles, which Chitra has faced numerous times, allowing her to become an expert in business management. She had to do everything in the beginning, including company formation, administration, and operations, prospecting, and outreach and business development, among other things.

Talking about the initial days of business Chitra says, “I feel that the initial days are the most challenging since you have to do everything – company formation, admin and operations, marketing collateral, prospecting, outreach and business development, ensuring availability of resources and right skills, managing delivery and client relationships and everything that comes with it”.

Because the pharmaceutical sector is highly regulated, establishing a quality management system to assure regulatory compliance is vital to operations. So, even with the employees engaged before the project's exposure, Chitra still had a lot of obligations to do.

With the first company, Sciformix, the early days were spent pitching the company and trying to attract business while also managing the issues of project delivery in the domain of pharmacovigilance, which was relatively new in India at the time and lacked skilled resources. Along with the other leaders, she had to multitask and work long hours.

Actu-Real's early days were considerably different from Sciformix's. The new corporation was founded at the same time as the global pandemic hit the world, which caused huge adjustments in corporate operations around the world.

Chitra was in India when the pandemic hit, and the biggest problem she encountered in the early days was not being able to visit to the United States to create relationships and contacts. With the travel ban, she was off to a rocky start because her major target clients were from the United States, including several from industry categories she was unfamiliar with. It was difficult to get the company registered in the US, and this led to a change in her initial plans.

Chitra partnered with a well-established US based business as an investor and operating partner to get the initial cash. Getting prospects enthused about new locations has been difficult for her since the beginning of her career with Actu-Real and building a new business in the post-pandemic business environment was even more difficult.

However, Chitra is a self-motivated individual who is aware of her responsibilities to investors, employees, and clients, which keeps her going; also, the need to prove to herself that she can deliver despite all odds; and previous experience of overcoming difficult situations gives her the confidence that she can do it again.

She Faced her Challenges Boldly

Every company encounters a variety of internal and external obstacles. The most difficult difficulty for Chitra was recruiting and keeping good personnel because all of her enterprises relied on them. Building a connection built on respect and credibility with everyone from staff to partners was critical.

The company's external issues were largely related to industry advancements, new trends, and so forth. You need a solid plan to remain ahead of industry trends, but you also need to be nimble and tactical. Chitra made sure she took advantage of every opportunity that came her way without losing sight of her goal of creating a unique organisation.

Talking about challenges she faced, she says-

“There will always be a myriad of challenges in a business, both internal and external. It’s important to anticipate them and have a mitigation plan. All my businesses have been people dependent. So, the biggest challenge at any stage of the company is to find and retain good people. This is where your credibility, credentials, the respect you command based on your experience, the culture you build in the organization, as well as the inspiration and leadership you provide becomes critical. I was able to use these levers to ensure that we had the right skill set and mind set in the company”.

Taking leaps and growing business.

Chitra recognised that making revisions to her original strategy was the only way forward when she began her present firm in 2020, amidst the global pandemic and lockdowns. Despite the limitations and inability to get things done on her own, she was able to get her firm off the ground.

She made the difficult decision to give up a stake in the firm early on, but it was her determination and focus that enabled her to expand the company at a time when many new businesses were floundering. The investor's and operating partner's support has been extremely beneficial. She invested into new service areas that weren't in the original business strategy, while focusing on new ways to maintain growth in existing ones.

Way forward

Chitra’s business philosophy is simple: ‘believe in yourself; and do the right thing and do it as well as you can, no matter how small the task at hand; work for the best and plan for the worst. Assembling the right team and believing in them is also equally important.’

Despite the challenges that she has faced along her journey, Chitra is focused on making her start-up a success like her previous business ventures. She is willing to invest time and efforts to build her company as per her plans despite the challenges that lie ahead. Since she is operating in an emerging and exciting field, there are many opportunities to make a difference, and she wants to play her part in providing innovative solutions that truly matter.

Chitra’s Advice to Entrepreneurs

“Be very clear about the merits & demerits of the entrepreneurial option vs other options; do it because of the passion & not because there aren’t other options; don’t venture into it half-heartedly, thinking that you will try it for 6 months, but have a reasonable timeframe as your horizon; have the ability to take risks, while also being pragmatic about how much risk can you take & what it would mean at a personal level; adequate market research before determining the focus area of the venture; have a clear USP; recognize what you lack and build the leadership team with the right people who have complementary skills; be willing to take decisions that serve the best interest of the organization, even if it means letting go of some control or making some compromises at the personal level”.

Know More about Chitra:

When I face a big challenge- I attempt to think about it in a systematic way, find the main reason, then break down the solution into little parts so that addressing the problem is not overwhelming, and progress can be tracked. I also attempt to imagine the worst-case scenario if I don't succeed in overcoming the problem and recognize that it won't be the end of the world, so I don't need to be discouraged. I draw on my previous experience as well as what I've observed my peers or superiors accomplish in similar situations.

My greatest fear is- There isn’t a fear as such, from a professional standpoint, but of course, there’s always a worry about not being able to achieve what you have set out to, and thus not being able to live up to the faith that employees, partners and investors have put on you.

The most courageous thing I’ve ever done is- Professionally, the entrepreneurial plunge I took with my previous co.

If I could go back in time to when I was 20, I would tell myself- To develop serious extra-curricular skills and serious hobbies that can last a lifetime

I believe in- I believe in doing the right thing, no matter what the other person does, or what I am up against. Because I am answerable to myself and my conscience, no one else.

The biggest lesson I have ever learned is- Don’t be afraid to explore and try things out, and think holistically & rationally while you do this.

My favourite business tool or resource is- Trust (in clients, in investors, in employees, in peers and superiors) – it pays back big-time.

My favourite quote is- “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you”.

I always try to put myself in the shoes of the other person when I must react to a delicate situation. This has helped because everyone who has worked with me believes that I am always fair to everyone.

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