M. Vadyasagar, executive vice president, Tata Consultancy Services.
Heads up TCS’s Advanced Technology Center in Hyderabad, India, which houses the company’s bioinformatics practice, launched in August 2001.
Currently, the ATC employs around 35 bioinformaticists. The group is currently working in comparative genomics, proteomics, and rational drug design.
With a broad pool of information technology talent to draw from and an emerging pharmaceutical industry, India seems like the perfect breeding ground for bioinformatics. But at the recent Bangalore Bio 2002 conference, April 15-17, M. Vidyasagar took many attendees by surprise in a talk that downplayed the career opportunities available for the country’s bioinformaticists. Vidyasagar, executive vice president at one of India’s leading IT companies, Tata Consultancy Services, estimated that India could support only between 1,000 and 2,000 bioinformatics employees over the next five years, with a worldwide total of 10,000.
BioInform recently caught up with Vidyasagar to discuss his outlook, which contradicts the popular perception in the field that there’s a worldwide shortage of bioinformaticists.
Your comments at the Bangalore meeting seemed to counter the conventional wisdom that even though bioinformatics software companies aren’t doing so well, there’s still strong demand for people who are trained in bioinformatics for jobs in biotech and pharma.
Based on the consulting report I quoted in my talk, the rate of growth of bioinformatics within pharma and biotech companies is not going to grow any faster than outsourced bioinformatics. So it doesn’t look like that market is going to grow any noticeably faster than the outsourced market. And the two seem to be of more or less comparable magnitude. So maybe you could take the numbers for the outsourced market [$700 million] and multiply them by two, but it’s not as if you can multiply them by ten.
Do you find that the culture within pharma in India is reluctant to accept bioinformatics as a discipline?
They don’t see [bioinformatics] as an independently valuable tool. They see it as some kind of subservient thing. It’s a cultural issue, and it’s not Indian, it’s worldwide. If anything, in India the pharma companies are a little bit more open because in India IT is perceived as being extremely successful, so pharma companies are trying to ride piggyback on us. In the US, the opposite is true. In the US the pharma industry is about 80 percent the size of the IT industry, whereas in India the IT industry is roughly two and a half times the size of the pharma industry.
Why do you suppose there’s a perception that there’s a larger demand for bioinformaticists than there really is?
There are two or three factors at work. First of all, people are in general rather exuberant. They want to fantasize; they want to dream big. When the human genome got mapped last year it caught the imagination of the public and people got carried away — the idea was that you could prick your finger, take a blood sample, run it through a sequence analyzer, and a custom-designed drug would pop out the other end. It’s not impossible, but it’s just not practical at the present state of knowledge. So people started imagining all these possibilities and started thinking big.
In my lecture I was trying to caution the youngsters not to pay exorbitant fees for bioinformatics courses at less than reputable training institutions. That’s perhaps a peculiar Indian phenomenon. That danger may not exist in the United States.
Could you explain what you mean by that danger?
Well, in India there are respectable mainstream universities, which typically tend to offer nine-month or one-year diploma courses in bioinformatics, which would cost anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 rupees [$200-$400]. But there are also many small training institutions that are charging 10 times that much. Unfortunately, many youngsters are led to believe they can get a fast-track career if they spend all this money. When an institution charges that much money, there’s an implied contract that the person is going to be employable, whereas actually for these dubious institutions it’s just a way of raising revenue. All these institutes who are charging all this money are turning out students who may not necessarily be employable. I think the graduates of the mainstream universities will be alright, but there are so few of them and entrance admissions can be very strict, so that has allowed all these fly-by-night outfits to flourish, at least in India.
Why is this more prevalent in India than elsewhere?
Well, there’s a great Indian middle-class rush to escape to the promised land, so to speak.
Does the large number of IT professionals in India have anything to do with this phenomenon? Are people with backgrounds in IT looking to move into bioinformatics?
No. Actually, I’ve found that the most interest has not come from IT people, but from life sciences people. In India the life sciences people tend to be far less employable than IT people, so they see this as a way of making themselves more employable.
Do you get many applicants at TCS who have come through these less-than reputable training programs?
Well, I advertised for 25 positions and I got 24,000 applications. So I wound up taking 35 or 36. Most of them were not graduates of these institutes because I was not looking for any prior bioinformatics training. We were just going to hire on the basis of intellectual aptitude and train them ourselves. So we were looking for a master’s in life sciences or a master’s or bachelor’s in engineering or computer science.
So would you even recommend that students get a specialized degree in bioinformatics at all?
My worry about programs in bioinformatics is that they are very interdisciplinary and by their nature they tend to have a very short life span. If you study biology, 10 years from now there will surely be biology in some form or another — the same thing with chemistry or computer science or electrical engineering — but if you learn a little biology, a little programming, a little bit of something else, then you’re just trying to ride some kind of wave and when the wave collapses, you’re not re-employable. So you have to make sure that you have a core qualification and perhaps something like bioinformatics that you can add on as an extra skill. So that’s what the youngsters have to realize — that they shouldn’t neglect their core qualifications.
It’s kind of unusual to hear such realistic expectations.
I think you’re trying to say pessimistic! I hope I don’t sound pessimistic, because 1,000 to 2,000 people is a lot of people for a country like India. It’s nothing compared to the 250,000 IT professionals we have, but then the Indian IT market is $10 billion. So obviously Indian IT can employ an enormous number of people. Maybe in the future we’ll grow to that stage, but I don’t see that just yet.
For those kids who have been admitted to both mainstream information technology programs and bioinformatics programs I urge them to go with the mainstream IT programs because they can always go from IT to bioinformatics but it’s much harder to make the reverse transition.
Most people don’t seem to perceive bioinformatics as a risky career choice right now.
I hope I’m proven wrong. It’s one of those cases where the rational side of me says that’s all there is, but the emotional side says I hope I’m wrong.
Vadyasagar reverse-engineered his job market numbers based on data on the worldwide market for biopharmaceuticals and bioinformatics:
• Worldwide pharmaceutical market: $380 billion
• Worldwide IT market: $600-800 billion
• Worldwide biotech market: $37 billion
• India''s IT market: $10 billion
• Worldwide market for outsourced bioinformatics: $700 million, growing at 20-25% annually
• India''s share of worldwide software market: 1.5%
• India''s annual revenues with same share of worldwide bioinformatics market: $10-$30 million over next five years
• India''s share of IT services market: 15%
• India''s annual revenues with same share of bioinformatics market: $100-$300 million over next five years
• Average salary for Indian IT employee: $40,000 annually
• Current number of bioinformaticists employed in India: 300-500
• Low estimate of Indian bioinformatics job market, using 1.5% share of worldwide market: 250-750 employees
• High estimate of Indian bioinformatics job market, using 15% share of worldwide market: 2,500-7,500 employees