Alumni Profile: Purnanand Sarma

purnanand sarmaPurnanand Sarma: A Doctorate in Pharmaceutics Paves the Way for a Career in Pharmaceutical Industry Leadership

Though Purnanand Sarma earned his bachelor’s of science degree in pharmacy from Andhra University in India, it was his fascination with research that led him to the
University of Minnesota.

“The University offered an opportunity to participate in meaningful research in the United States and was highly ranked,” said Sarma. “I applied to many schools, but Minnesota rose to the top.”

In 1988 Gilbert Banker was serving as Dean of the college, which also caught Sarma’s interest.

“Dr. Banker wrote a seminal book on modern pharmaceutics, which we studied in college, and he was just one of the highly respected and well-known faculty when I started in 1988,” said Sarma.

After earning his doctorate in 1992, Sarma started his career at SmithKline Beecham in product development. From there, he spent 10 years in the San Francisco region at Nektar Therapeutics serving as its first Managing Director and as Vice President of Drug Development & Program Management as well as Corporate Development & Strategy.

 “First, be open-minded, and second, don’t let anyone define who you are”

“Those years at Nektar were the most transformative to me, moving from a technical product development role, to management and business transformation,” said Sarma. “Spending time in a small company, I had an opportunity to expand my knowledge of building companies with the necessary tools such as hiring talented people, significant partner interactions and fundraising. At every stage, I bring it all back to my training in Minnesota.”

Sarma then served as Vice President and General Manager of Worldwide Drug Delivery Technologies for Cephalon Corporation before moving to TARIS Biomedical where he serves today as its President and Chief Executive Officer. 

In August 2014, four years after he took over, Sarma sold Taris Biomedical’s first clinical-stage product for the treatment of interstitial cystitis to Allergan in a deal worth $587 million. He is currently developing TARIS into a global leader in therapeutic urology.

“In a risky business such as pharmaceutical development, the key is to be comfortable being uncomfortable”

Another influential figure in Sarma’s education and career path was Professor David Grant, who passed away in 1995.

“The most important thing Dr. Grant taught me is how to solve a problem, or more importantly how to think about a problem,” said Sarma. “He was a phenomenal one-on-one teacher and my first advisor. Plus, he was a very nice human being.”

Sarma also fondly recalls Professor of Chemistry Margaret Etter as a luminary in her field and a strong influence during and after his time at the college. Etter defined how molecules of crystals formed, and her rules of hydrogen bonding put her at the top of her field.

While completing his doctorate and doing research on the drug ephedrine, Sarma caught the attention of Professor Etter and she became interested in his work to understand how the molecules come together—some left-handed and some right-handed—and then grew crystals from the vapor phase.

“One of the most well-known scientists of her time took an interest and strongly encouraged me to publish this research as she felt the phenomena was quite fundamental,” said Sarma. “This stuck with me and broadened my horizons.”

Sarma’s advice to the pharmacy students today? “First, be open-minded, and second, don’t let anyone define who you are,” he said. “Take some risks along the way, and remember that as a pharmacist, you’re not an engineer, not a doctor and not a chemist—you’re a little bit of each of them and, trust me, this will serve you well.”

And for students specifically interested in a career in pharmaceutical development?

“In a risky business such as pharmaceutical development, the key is to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” said Sarma.