2011 Distinguished Alumni Award Honoree
A scientist turned entrepreneur, Krishna Ella PhD’93 is most notably a humanitarian — supplying affordable hepatitis vaccines to millions of people around the globe.
Ella grew up in a farming family in Tamil Nadu, India. As a young man, he wanted to study agriculture and become a farmer. With help from a Rotary Foundation scholarship, he came to the United States, and at the universities of Hawaii and Wisconsin, his interests turned to science. “I experienced a complete change in my thinking process,” Ella said. “My teachers gave me courage to take risks and to pursue science passionately.”
Ella arrived in Madison with his wife, Suchitra, and daughter. The young family moved into Eagle Heights, the university’s housing for graduate students, and soon welcomed a son. Though he worked long hours, Ella remembers the time fondly, from cheering on the Badgers to taking spring walks to the Union Terrace. “After the Friday evening lab meetings, we would all get together to enjoy our favorite beer and lots of cheese,” he said. “The five years as a student in Madison were some of the most memorable years in my life.”
He also enjoyed field trips to rural areas of Wisconsin and Minnesota to harvest potatoes for research. “All the students in the class camped in the fields and it built good team spirit,” Ella said. “I was among only a few Indian students who graduated from the Department of Plant Pathology, and that gave me immense pride.”
After earning his PhD, Ella joined the Medical University of South Carolina-Charleston, where he made a shift from plant pathology to human and yeast molecular biology. In 1996, with the encouragement of his wife and his mother, he returned to India and set up a small laboratory in the city of Hyderabad.
"I look forward to continuing this beautiful relationship with my alma mater in the interest of mankind and public health."
While conducting research on a yeast molecular gene, Ella began to conceptualize a hepatitis vaccine. In search of funding to get his product to market, he was met with suspicion when he proposed a price of $1 per vaccine when the going rate was $35 to $40. Undeterred, he raised the funds to launch Bharat Biotech International Ltd., a company that today has supplied 1.5 billion vaccine doses to more than 65 countries. Ella’s mission is to provide the 5.8 billion people of developing nations with this safe, affordable vaccine.
Bharat Biotech’s hepatitis plant was the initial tenant in India’s first biotech park, paving the way for hundreds of knowledge-based industries at Genome Valley in Hyderabad.
Ella has a strong belief in the power of innovation and entrepreneurship to solve societal problems, and he has also been instrumental in setting up three other biotech centers in India. He is also deeply committed to motivating young Indians, and has given hundreds of lectures on innovation, bio-entrepreneurship and regulation.
Ella has received more than 100 national and international awards, including the Best Technology and Innovation award from the Prime Minister of India, and he was invited to meet with Bill and Melinda Gates and President George W. and Laura Bush during their trips to India.
At the outset I extend very warm & hearty greetings to the entire UW community.
I am deeply overwhelmed and humbled to be chosen for the 2011 University of Wisconsin Distinguished Alumni Award. I have always viewed UW -Madison as one of the best academic institutions in the world and it is of immense pride & honor to be associated with it as an alumnus. I am deeply grateful to the selection committee who have nominated me & to the distinguished jury of the Award Committee for selecting me to receive this once-in-a-lifetime recognition. I must acknowledge first and foremost the blessings of my mother, Vennamma, and the love & selfless support I received from my wife, Suchitra, during the tough years as a graduate student & throughout my professional career.
As a farmer’s son, I was encouraged to pursue higher education in agriculture. Instead, destiny made me pursue a career in the life sciences. Hard work & luck favored my acceptance to this prestigious College of Agricultural Sciences at the UW. I must also place on record that I could not have received this world class education & training but for the financial support from the Freedom from Hunger Scholarship, from the Rotary Foundation of Rotary International, followed by the Research Assistantship from the department of Plant Pathology.
I spent my most memorable years from 1987 to 1993 on campus — in the department / Russell Labs with seamless exchange of knowledge in science, living in Apt. # 903A Eagle Heights, dropping off my daughter at Shorewood Hills Elementary School, the birth of my son at Meriter Hospital, changing diapers, cheering at Badgers games, campus bus rides, spring time walks to the Memorial Union, the Friday lab meetings with beer & cheese, Babcock ice cream across the street, vegetable plucking at Tree Farm, shopping at the Chinese store on E. Park St., the Wisconsin winters, the part-time job at Memorial Library, keeping up with the experiments 24-7, buying my used, red Toyota Tercel, all the weekend chores, shopping for groceries at Woodman’s — the list can go on.
I sincerely acknowledge & convey my special thanks to the support & encouragement of my guides / mentors Dr. John Helgeson, Dr. Christine Upper, Dr. Susan Hirano, my fellow graduate students, post docs, technicians & staff in my lab & in the Dept. of Plant Pathology. These wonderful human beings were always there to share problems and discuss solutions. It was indeed thought provoking to sit in the classrooms of National Science Academy members and Nobel laureates, and it is essentially those lectures that changed my thinking process in truly appreciating research in science. My experiences here helped in recreating new perspectives in me and encouraged me not to follow the beaten path.
In 1996, when I returned to India, I was ready to take risks. My wife Suchitra & I took the plunge to become first-generation entrepreneurs. We started a small lab in Hyderabad & later co-founded Bharat Biotech International, with a mission to serve the 5.8 billion population of the developing world & emerging markets in the arena of public healthcare. Today, our company has delivered more than 1.2 billion doses of vaccines worldwide.
I share this momentous occasion and this distinguished award with my family, my employees, my well wishers, my angel investors and all those who trusted me & continue to support me in my entrepreneurial journey to offer world class-vaccines, affordable to the common man.
I look forward to continue this beautiful relationship with my alma mater in the interest of mankind & public health.