“I want to explain to the people how India can add to the world’s wealth through innovation”
Villoo Morawala Patell’s youthful looks and exuberant personality hides formidable learning in complex and cutting-edge fields such as genomics, proteomics, sequencing and metabolics.
Original article by MoneyLife.com
From a five-person academic start-up working from a university laboratory in 1998, Avestha Gengraine Technologies Pvt Ltd (Avesthagen) is now 500-people strong, has spawned several affiliates and forged formidable research alliances in India and abroad. Patell calls Avesthagen a fully-integrated biotechnology and bio-informatics company focusing on the convergence between food, pharmaceuticals and clinical genomics. Its partners include Bio Mérieux of France, Sequenom Inc of the US, Cipla, Godrej Agrovet, Nestle of Switzerland and IFU of Denmark. It has a portfolio of 55 patent applications and is working on a unique project called Avesthagenome to build a complete genetic database of the Parsis (a community which has a relatively pristine genetic structure due to inter-marriages) which will help establish the linkage between genes, disease and environmental factors and help predict diseases and develop new therapies and diagnostics
ML: Shall we start with where you were born and the early influences that shaped you?
VMP: I was born in Navsari, a small town in Gujarat where the Parsis first settled on arriving from Iran; it is also known as the place where Jamshetji Tata was born. The name Morawala comes from a village called Mora. My paternal grandparents, Dinshaw Morawala and Meherbai, came from Surat, but migrated along with several Parsi families when invited by the then Nizam of Hyderabad. My grandfather was the tax collector for Bidar district, now in Karnataka. The Morawala family is academically inclined and is into writing, art, sculpting and poetry.
My mother Daulat’s family is well known as the Borkhadi Kasads – a farming family for hundreds of years. My grandfather, Sohrabji Kasad, headed a joint family of seven brothers and two sisters. They continue to farm as a joint family operation at Borkhadi, a village near Navsari and grow mangoes, tur daal and titoli. I feel proud that I have such a strong connection to our soil and roots in Navsari. It keeps me grounded. Starting this company was considered such a hare-brained idea that I had to find someone who believed in me to sign the documents as the second director. I could only think of my mother, so I said, “Come on Mama, you have to help me start this company.” So, she is the co-founder of Avesthagen. She was the first child and the only girl in a family of three brothers – a largely male household. She was bright, elegant, spirited, rebellious and also a woman of principles. She has been a strong influence in my life as well as in the lives of my brother Mahiyar, a technical writer and my sister Baktawar, who runs a small school. She taught us to respect all races, religions and the environment. We blended into the local cultures of Nizamabad and Navsari and yet kept our identity. At the age of six, I was sent off to St Ann’s High School, a boarding school in Secunderabad.
We came back home for holidays – to Nizamabad for Christmas and to Navsari during Diwali or summer. During the holidays at Nizamabad, we visited a lot of families who were in different businesses and I saw them very closely. We got on to our family-owned trucks and went for jatras around temples and Urs around dargahs of Sufi saints. What more could you want to imbibe of the real India!
ML: Nizamabad to Navsari… how did your parents meet?
VMP: It was an arranged marriage. Once my mother was married off, her uncles said she couldn’t study further. She was a woman who always got what she wanted. When she married my father, who was 10 years older and came from Navsari, she found herself in a state where the purdah system was at its height. There were some tough moments; but my father has always treated her like a princess.
My father, Dara Morawala, was a businessman with a political bent of mind and also advised his friends on the stock market. After his father died at 33, my grandmother had moved back to Surat with her five children. She brought them up with her three sisters who remained unmarried. At 18, my father went off to Bina in Madhya Pradesh and returned only when he was 32. His mother then sent him to Nizamabad to help his engineer uncle, Jehangir Nalawala who was into buildings, movie houses, canals and cotton ginning mills. My father started as his assistant and later became a partner. My father, who is now 85, was always liberal in his thoughts and always encouraged me to go after my wildest dreams.
I am telling you all this because this mixed heritage, places and their influences have all gone into creating this emotion-driven company called Avesthagen. I live in the past, the present and the future and pull together all these factors – history, geography, science and cultures – in running Avesthagen. We stand for building a strong India whose people stand on their own feet in technology and new food, feed, pharma and fuel.
ML: Where does your interest in science and research come from?
VMP: I was a mischievous child, but I read a lot… I kept reading instead of cramming and had varied interests. I was a topper until class 7 after which my interests were so wide that, although I was a good student, I was not the kind who scored 90%.
ML: Did you plan on doing research at that stage?
VMP: Not really. Between arts and science, I opted for science. What was the choice then? You went into arts, science or medicine. I wanted to study at the Armed Forces Medical College in Pune and I tried, but didn’t get in. So I went into the BSc stream. I was good at chemistry in which I won the general proficiency prize. I was also good at languages and writing. Then Hyderabad was getting too small for me and so I decided to do my master’s at Sophia College in Mumbai in medical biochemistry. I had finished my BSc at 19 and my master’s by 22. I had fallen in love with Zareer Minoo Patell and got married within six months of doing my master’s at the age of 22. He was in Hyderabad; we used to write to each other everyday and he used to visit me in Mumbai. Zareer is a fitness instructor and a talented pianist, besides being extra-ordinarily good looking, liberal and giving me the freedom to be myself. I have been married for 29 years.
ML: You look very young to be married for 29 years.
VMP: Yes. I look younger than what I am; it has been good socially; but at work sometimes it becomes a handicap. People tend to slot scientists into a certain phenotype and I break that perception. Looking too young and behaving unconventionally in science is sometimes a problem; being unconventionally dressed is a problem; being a woman is a problem and thinking unconventionally is a problem. It has been quite a ride. There have been plenty of travails and it wasn’t easy at all, at times.