Starting Up in the Biosimilars Market: Oncobiologics’ CEO, Pankaj Mohan, on the Company’s Path to Success

In the race to bring biosimilar products to the market, many industry experts predict that pharma giants will be the winners.  However, some emerging biotech companies, such as Oncobiologics, have dared to enter the sector among the established players. How will they survive?

At the “Biosimilars 20/20” conference in Philadelphia, June 3-4, Pankaj Mohan, PhD, MBA, Founder & CEO of Oncobiologics discussed his journey of taking Oncobiologics from an idea to a reality. Oncobiologics, a U.S.-based biopharmaceutical firm launched in 2011, is focused on the development, manufacture and commercialization of global therapeutically-important, high-value complex biosimilars, including monoclonal antibodies and fusion proteins.

Dr. Mohan grew up in a family of lower- to middle-class in Delhi, India, an experience that he says gave him a “humble” perspective. He earned his undergraduate degree at the Institute of Technology in India. In his mid-twenties, Dr. Mohan moved to England, where he earned his MBA, specializing in Finance Management from Middlesex University Business School, London, and his PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Birmingham, UK. Before moving into the pharmaceutical industry, he worked in academia and with the government.

In this interview with Specialty Pharma Journal (SPJ), Dr. Mohan gives us insights into the ambitious, entrepreneurial venture he has launched in the biosimilars sector.

SPJ: As CEO of Oncobiologics, how were you able to build a company in this sector of biosimilars, which is so highly competitive and so full of really well-funded competitors?

Dr Mohan: So there are three kinds of hurdles in the biosimilars space that I’m in. I’m only focused on complex biosimilars, which are monoclonal antibodies. Those three hurdles are: A technical hurdle – which is high; a regulatory hurdle in the US and Europe, which is pretty high as well; and a financial hurdle. So this creates a select group of manufacture developers only. And you will see two groups: One is large pharma companies that have deep pockets, the second is small niche players, like us, that are focused heavily on this sector. The way I look at our competitive edge is, we have the same scientific rigor as a large pharma company but we operate at a higher speed, enhanced lower cost. That is critical for biosimilars because at the end of the day it is intended to benefit the patients and payers in terms of reduced costs of product. And also it is important that, that cost saving really makes it affordable.

SPJ: I can only imagine trying to enter a space where you’re competing against Pfizer, Merck, Hospira, and all the others. Isn’t it at least a little intimidating?

Dr. Mohan: I don’t believe that, because a biosimilar business model is kind of different. One of the biggest criteria for this space is, can you achieve the same quality to get approval? Right? But can you operate at a higher speed and enhance at a lower cost? If you reduce the cost of the hurdle of development cost by $40-50 million, and if you can manufacture the drugs cheaper than the pharma giants, that is the competitive advantage. Because once the product is approved by the FDA, the deciding factor, I believe, is going to be who competes in terms of not just branding, but also price.

SPJ: What do you think it is about you that makes you different enough to succeed in this space? You’re already succeeding. What do you attribute it to?

Dr. Mohan: I had planned this venture for a long time, and I kind of guided my training accordingly. So I worked for some significantly large pharma companies, like Lilly, Genentech, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and I tailored my training so that I’m ready for this venture. I was waiting for the right opportunity to jump in. The team that I have was already networked, so the moment I entered into this, suddenly the team came together. It’s all about people. If you have the right people, with the right skills, that’s what makes the foundation of success. It’s not just me. It is the people, the team I have, and the investor that backed us.

SPJ: So that network of people is something that you were been putting together for years before you actually came together for this company?

Dr. Mohan: Yes. It was pre-planned and also I have a lot of support from my last employer, too. It was discussed with them as I left the company. It was planned, and it was done in a way that could have success in the design of the venture.

SPJ: You’re both a scientist and you’re the CEO?

Dr. Mohan: Correct.

SPJ: So you are two critical factors. You’re the chief medical officer at the same time that you’re the CEO of the company?

Dr. Mohan: Right. So if you look at a major biotechs, a small biotech that can succeed, it is basically led by people who know the field very well. Most successful small biotechs are led by people who are deep into, and know the subject matter very well, so that they can really guide around a very complex kind of process forward. I would rather have somebody that has the technical knowledge and the expertise and trained as a manager or as a CEO than to have a generalist come in and be trained as a technologist, because this kind of integration of leadership with technical capability is key for success.

SPJ: Plus your entire business model depends on you knowing exactly what you need to achieve scientifically.

Dr. Mohan: Yes.

SPJ: What is your background as a scientist?

Dr. Mohan: For three years I was in academia before I moved to industry. So I’ve had diverse experience in academia, in industry, and also I’ve worked with the government. That combined experience gives a good kind of leverage in terms of leading something because every day is different, every day is a challenge, an opportunity. And to react to the curve balls that come to you, you have to have a broad breadth of experience to be able to handle that.

SPJ: In terms of your background, did it have an impact on your path to success?

Dr. Mohan: I grew up mostly in Delhi, the capital of India. My father was a government servant/officer. I would say we were lower to middle class people. I was 20 years of age before my father could afford a car. So we come from a very humble background… What it did was it gave me the bottom of the continuum… So it never depressed me when I thought I was close to bankruptcy.

SPJ: Often times, people go before investors and the investors don’t have the confidence in them. You’ve been successful in raising money to fund your company. Why do you think investors trust you?

Dr. Mohan: It’s mostly because of the training, the credibility the pedigree that I bring. In terms of most of the initial investors that I had were executives from large pharma biotech who basically I worked with or I touched them in some way or form. I could raise money with a piece of paper, with great difficulty, but because of their trust in me is what gives the first money. It’s all about trust. And also, they got to see that I put everything in. I put my 401K, I put everything I had into the venture. I took the maximum risk before I asked anybody else to take risks with me.

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Last updated: 6/12/15; 11:10am EST

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