The Economic Times, Bangalore

January 28, 1996

“New Wonders from Ancient Remedies”

Muhammed Majeed has brought a scientific perspective to Ayurvedic herbal practice, and is making and marketing these products in the US with success, says Nasima H Khan.

When Muhammed Majeed left his Kerala home for USA more than 20 years ago, he wasn’t sure of what he wanted to do. Now Majeed, who picked up a Ph.D. in industrial pharmacy from St John’s University on his way up, owns two pharmaceutical companies that cash in on ancient Indian herbal medicine.

Sabinsa Corporation, set up in 1988 and headquartered at Piscataway, New Jersey, is a raw material supplier of standardised Ayurvedic herbal extracts to American industry.

“Ayurveda is thousands of years old,” says Majeed. “But my approach is to bring a scientific perspective to this ancient herbal practice.”

Though the company now boasts a turnover of $14-15 million, the beginning was never easy. “I learnt the hard way,” says Majeed who had 15 years of research experience behind him but none in business or marketing.

Earlier, he had been working for a doctor, researching medicines that could be of use to his patients. He also worked as a product developer for such pharmaceutical giants as Carter-Wallace, Pfizer and Paco Research. After several years of that, however, he decided to beat off on his own. What he was doing for his employer, he could very well do for himself, he reasoned. That was the beginning of the concept of Sabinsa.

Majeed worked hard, learning to run his own company. “Initially, I used to concentrate a lot on my lab work,” he says. “It took me two years to realise that this was not how to make my company a success. Then I began to concentrate on marketing.”

That paid off, because in 1990, loss-making Sabinsa turned around and has not looked back since. The company employs 24 people, 2 of whom are of Indian origin, and markets pharmaceuticals, phytochemicals, fine chemicals and herbal extracts and has been highly successful in its efforts.

So much so that Majeed puckered up his courage and flew over to India to set up a second unit. His first attempt was at Bombay. “But everyone tries to cheat you of your money there. You have to be so careful.” His second thoughts about the location led him to settle for Bangalore, instead.

In 1991, he set up Sami Chemicals and Extracts in the Garden City. This plant was essentially meant to be a research and manufacturing group, “to supply to our marketing unit in the USA,” says Majeed referring to Sabinsa. “Now, we have a good marketing unit there and what we export from here is in demand in USA.”

Elaborating on the type of products made by Sami, Majeed says 90 per cent of them are being made in India for the very first time. And the major advantage is that much of the raw material for Sami’s products are to be located within India.

Citrin is perhaps the best known extract market by Sabinsa. It is a popular natural weight loss aid extracted from garcinia cambogia, used frequently in Kerala fish recipes and better known as Malabar tamarind. In fact, it is the recent success of Citrin that has contributed significantly to the company’s growth – sales were up a whopping 400 per cent for the first quarter of 1995!

Significant products are Boswellin with anti-arthritic action, Gugulipid for cholesterol reduction and Picroliv for anti-asthmatic activity, among others. Although their names sometimes sound strange, the Ayurvedic herbs Sabinsa sells are fast becoming familiar to health conscious consumers, claims Majeed. He believes that the understanding for Ayurvedic herbs is increasing in the US. “The key to that is going to be documentation and dissemination of literature,” he says.

Meanwhile, Sami is on the right track supplying the needs of its mother company. In 1991, the year of its institution, Sami saw exports worth Rs 45 lakhs. These rose to Rs 18 crore worth of exports in 1995. And to boot, last year Sami bagged a reputed quality award for basic drugs.

Says Majeed, “The Sami plant is set up according to US standards, because that’s the only standard I know.”

Sami employs 85 people, 25 of who are exclusively for research and development. And Majeed prefers to pick up fresh science doctorates from universities rather than experienced people. “Then I teach them my philosophy. And they learn to work without feeling intimidated by their boss,” comments Majeed.

Does he have plans to market his ‘no side effects, wonder drugs’ in India too? Yes, says he and put the tentative year as 1997. And he has already taken US patents for products in both firms.

Despite his keen supervision of both his companies and frequent travel between India and America for the purpose, Majeed is very attached to his family and likes to spend time with his wife, two daughters and a son. His affection is especially apparent in that he chose to name Sabinsa after his wife and Sami after his eldest daughter who recently turned 22.