Alum Ventures: Slayback Pharma – Ajay K Singh, PGP 2002

Ajay K Singh is the founder and CEO of Slayback Pharma, a pharma company focused on research and development of complex generic pharmaceutical products with operations in USA and India. Slayback started in 2012 with its first program and came into the spotlight in 2016 when it raised $60 Million from KKR in its Series A round. In 2018, Ajay was awarded the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in the Life Sciences category in New Jersey which is the Silicon Valley of Pharma. Last year in 2019, Slayback began selling its first products commercially under its own banner in the US market both in retail and hospital channels. Earlier this year in January 2020, Slayback raised another $50 Million in its Series B from Everstone Capital.

Please tell us something about yourself and your work.

I grew up in a village (Pokhrama, District Lakhisarai) in Bihar where my parents lived and died. Like many others, I did well in school. I came to Delhi for my undergrad studies at Hindu College and then went to Law School. During my time at the university, I worked part-time in the tourism industry to make both ends meet. After completing my LLB, I realized I didn’t want to practice law. I wrote the CAT exam and joined the 2000-02 batch at IIM Bangalore. Just when we were in our final year, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center got blown up on 9/11/2001.  This rocked the world economy and our placements got severely affected. I went out of campus to find a job at Dr Reddy’s as I was fascinated by what Indian pharma was doing at the cusp of intellectual property law and business. That was a field where I could use both my law and business education. I spent a decade working for Dr Reddy’s across functions, first in India and then the USA, rose through the ranks and was their VP of a few departments before I left to start Slayback Pharma.

My family and I also started a foundation (Pokhrama Foundation) in 2016, focused on education for disadvantaged children in remote rural pockets of Bihar.

How and when did you get the idea for Slayback Pharma?

Slayback started in 2012. This was the time I had just completed a decade at Dr Reddy’s Labs. Most generic pharma companies active in the US at that time had seen a period of massive growth and had consequently become slower. (Warren Buffet famously said, “Size is the enemy of excellence.”) I was growing paranoid with this idea that a smaller, lean organization run by a smart nimble team could connect the dots and develop complex drugs with far greater speed. By then I had gathered the necessary experience to take the plunge. Slayback was founded on that notion. We were going to be the speed boat for complex drug development.  I am happy to say that our track record over the last eight years shows we were largely able to deliver on that promise. We have four “sole first to file generic products” to our credit in a short time-span, while many larger pharma companies do not have a single one in their entire history.

What are the products offered by Slayback Pharma? And what are your future plans?

We have two products currently approved being prescribed to patients in the USA and a deep pipeline of complex products under development. One of these commercially available products (Dexmedetomidine injection) is a hospital sedative, an injection being currently used to sedate Covid-19 patients who go on a ventilator. The other is a long-acting injection given to pregnant women who are at risk of pre-term labor.

What are your focus areas: R&D or reaching the masses?

Our core focus is R&D of difficult and complex pharmaceutical products and making them affordable. There are numerous pharmaceutical products which have an underlying technical complexity or an IP barrier because of which no generics exist. The prices of such products therefore remain high, making them unaffordable. We use our R&D skills to bridge the affordability gap in such products.

What role is the pharma industry going to play under the current scenario and post the crisis?

The pharma industry is already playing a lead role in the current crisis — not only in terms of exploring various paths to a vaccine but also in providing a cure for patients infected by Covid-19. The current situation may appear grim. But it’s important to remember that we have solved bigger problems in the past. Small Pox has been completely eradicated from the world because of a vaccine. Polio too is close to getting eliminated. We now have totally new techniques for developing vaccines such as the RNA approach being undertaken by Moderna. There are numerous vaccine candidates being pursued for Covid-19 and I’m confident we will find a vaccine that works and is safe. And with some luck, it may be available sooner than we think.

What according to you are the entrepreneurship essentials?

This is a vast topic. First and foremost, no one should undertake an entrepreneurial journey with “hitting a financial jackpot” as the driving force. If you seek a jackpot, you won’t get it. Pursue an idea that you can get passionate about and maybe, if you are lucky, you may hit the jackpot.

At the core, it is a psychological journey. The entrepreneurial road tests your character, temperament and strength. You need to pursue authenticity and first principles. There is no other way. If you work for a larger company, your mediocrity can remain hidden and at times even rewarded as long as you manage impressions. In an entrepreneurial journey, all this is meaningless. You enter the gladiatorial fight. It’s like you’ve stepped into a boxing ring. A good sounding presentation and fancy models and reports will not help you. Have you really created value and do you have a way to monetize it?  This is all that matters.

It’s also a journey of self-discovery.  You cannot emulate someone else. You need to find your own path. Lots of self-doubts will hold you back but courage will take you forward. Some self-doubt is useful and even essential as it helps you crosscheck your assumptions. But too much of self-doubt is likely to be counter-productive. That’s why courage is a key component.

In the end, I don’t know of a single successful entrepreneurial journey which wasn’t built on the foundation of a clear vision, loads of passion as well as tonnes of hard work and perseverance. If you don’t feel the passion for an idea in your gut, probably you need to wait for something else.

Who has been your role model?

There are many. But Bill Gates is someone I have lots of respect for. What he did at Microsoft was of course impressive. But more importantly, what he is doing at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is incredible. His life continues to be an inspiration.

Any advice to alums who aspire to become entrepreneurs?

 Here are some practical tips.

Cash is far more important than you think. You may have the best idea in the world, but if you run out of cash, it’s the end of the road.

Valuation is important but many start-ups never get an opportunity to scale because the entrepreneur is unwilling to go through dilution. As long as the business is growing and your valuation is higher than the previous round, it’s better to raise capital and keep the balance sheet strong.

Do you really know your weaknesses? Have you built a team with people who complement your weaknesses?

Never hire someone in your leadership team you are not sure about, even if it means keeping the position open for more time. Great talent is worth waiting for. If the person turns out to be a bad apple, he or she will hire other bad apples. And they may chase some good apples away.

Do you have a strong independent board? Or have you filled your board with friends and family? Are your board members strong, smart and independent enough to protect your company from your own self?

Your favorite quote? 

“Only the paranoid survive …

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