R&D forms the core of innovation, and innovation forms the backbone of our society through the development of socially useful products !

Jose Paul, our next pathbreaker, Director ( Technical, R&D, QA & Regulatory Affairs) at Primus Gloves Private Ltd (Cochin), heads an R&D team that manufactures a variety of specialty gloves that are designed for healthcare professionals as well as used in Pharma manufacturing.

Jose talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his career journey in the world of natural rubber and the various challenges and opportunities to innovate and develop indigenous products for new markets.

For students, never let go of an opportunity when it comes, especially those that take you out of your comfort zone !

Jose, let’s start from the beginning …

I did my schooling in Sainik School, Amaravathinagar in Tamilnadu. I took the test for the Sainik School based in Kazhakootm, Kerala but was given an option to join the TN school. I was excited and so was my brother who was at that time studying in Sainik School, Kazhakootam. My father was a Govt servant and my mother a homemaker. I am the youngest of four. 

I joined the school in 1974 and passed out in 1982. The eight years spent at the boarding school taught me to be independent, and the military training disciplined me in many ways. We had students from various parts of the country and I, by and far, feel that the close interaction with students from across the nation, from various backgrounds and different upbringing, is what instilled in me true secularism, and adaptability to varied cultures. Our involvement in many extra-curricular activities like sports and games, cultural, literary activities etc gave us an extra mileage. 

Tell us about your educational background

I was not very studious, and partly because of that, and due to my lack of interest in pursuing a career in the Armed Forces, I opted for a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry in a local college. I liked Chemistry and hence did very well in the course. Being in Cochin, I always wanted to study in the Cochin University of Science and Technology, and when I came to know about the BTech course in Polymer Science & Rubber Technology, I was really excited. I passed the entrance test and was admitted to the BTech program in the University in 1986. 

What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

The three years I was there in the university (it was then a course designed for graduates and hence was only for three years!) helped me to understand Rubber better and instilled in me a passion for the material. The huge and well stocked library added to my excitement! I was involved in the Society of Polymer Technologists (SPOT) , a student chapter, in various official capacities and it was fun organising seminars, publishing articles and pursuing various technical projects.

In early 1990, I joined JK Tyres in Kankroli, Rajasthan as a Project trainee as part of my curriculum. Later, I was offered an entry Job as an Asst Technical officer. I loved the job and still love the smell of Rubber and Sulphur which excites me! I worked there for a few years and then there was that call from home, which I could not refuse….. the call to be back home and settle down! My superiors thought that was a bad idea, as the Tyre sector was going through a great spell, and the opportunities were plenty. Many had persuaded me to reconsider the relocation, but I had already made up my mind to be back with my ageing parents……that brought me back to Kerala, but the few years in Rajasthan and the various travels I had during the period exposed me to the culture, and helped me sharpen my Hindi. I consider these a few assets I picked up in my journey.

Soon, I joined the Glove manufacturing unit of the A V Thomas group of companies as Rubber Technologist, with equal responsibilities in manufacturing and Technology. This job gave me the freedom to experiment with new technology and ideas, which I consider to be a milestone in my career. We were amongst the first companies to be ISO certified and hence the emphasis on Quality.  Later, it was this training and experimenting with the quality systems and production processes that made me confident to take up full responsibility of putting up a Quality Management System in a new glove manufacturing company in 2000. I would remain with this company, PRIMUS GLOVES PVT LTD,  till date.

Can you talk about your career path at Primus Gloves?

My journey with PRIMUS started in 2000, and continues till now. I was Manager-QA when I started off in PRIMUS, and was instrumental in establishing a sturdy Quality management system based on ISO 13485 and USFDA QSR. We could get the USFDA 510(k) number and the CE markings for all our products, all by ourselves when most of the companies were engaging external consultants. I believe this was achieved only by developing a great team. Meanwhile, I have been experimenting with various processes and products resulting in a patent for the manufacture of a Polymer coated powder-free gloves.

In 2008, I enrolled for an M.E (by Research) in Chemical Engineering at CUSAT. Well, the decision to do an M.E came from my desire to do a PhD. You need to have a Masters for that and having a part time M.E (by research) comes in handy.  From the very next year after I joined, this course was discontinued due to non-patronage. I was lucky to have clinched the opportunity at that time!

Well, I fact I even registered for my PhD in CUSAT, but on the day of the entrance test, we had an important regulatory audit and I had to be at the factory and so I missed it!!

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

My career and my work has been application driven and not pure chemistry. It was in fact applied chemistry and I had a knack for coming up with some typical application by tweaking the existing method…. I love improvisation… and then I was always involved neck deep in the company’s troubleshooting exercise and that was fun though it was challenging !

How did you get your first break?

Though my first break out of college was through my industrial training, my real break was getting a job after coming back to Kerala. I had a very good rapport with my professors here in CUSAT, so when my parents approached them saying they would like to have me back home, it was they who actually went around scouting for a suitable job, and AVT was only happy to have me even without a formal interview. This is something I would like to emphasize to students, never ever break away from your professors and others in the industry. Share the knowledge that you have, and you would be surprised to see more coming back to you! References come from people who are confident and comfortable with you.

Tell us about your current role

Currently, I am the Director of the company heading the Technical, R&D, Quality Assurance and Regulatory affairs of the company. I am also the Chief Operating Officer of our sister concern, SANREA HEALTHCARE PRODUCTS PVT LTD based in Palakkad.

In May 2019, we established the PRIMUS R&D CENTRE, a long-time dream come true. The centre received recognition from DSIR (Department of Scientific and Industrial Research) in Nov, 2019. We are now a DSIR recognised in-house R&D centre and the recognition is valid till 2025. We have developed many socially useful products like the face mask cushion, neck seals for self-contained breathing apparatus designed for Doctors, shoe covers, extra-long gloves for COVID sampling walk-in-Kiosk, and many products during COVID. It has been a rewarding journey and a challenge to develop these products. 

We have, over the years, moved from manufacture of surgical gloves to long cuff specialty gloves. These specialty gloves are used predominantly in Pharma manufacturing, and being one of the only companies capable of manufacturing such long gloves, and with all the necessary quality certifications we were able to corner a fairly good share of the Pharma glove market. We had become a major supplier of Pharma gloves by 2008, a position we held till 2021, when our brand PRIMUS and our life sciences market was acquired by the multinational ANSELL. 

Sometime in mid-2019, I was contacted by a Pharma company in Gujarat to advise them on an issue related to Sterility, raised by the US FDA. I visited the plant and based on discussions with them, came to understand the need for an Isolator/RABS glove, which till then had not been made in India. 

Isolator gloves are used in Isolators, a system of manufacture used in highly critical items like vaccines. All these gloves were made from Synthetic materials and were prohibitively costly. I suggested the usage of Natural Rubber gloves, which would be much cheaper. They had not tried it and so were not sure. I assured them that I would develop a glove made from Natural Rubber, indigenously and send them some samples for testing. I, on my return, discussed the matter with my R&D team. I always believed in creative improvisation of ideas for solving seemingly bigger problems and set my team thinking. The team was all new to R&D, but the best of ideas came from the less initiated. With the limited resources we had, it was only natural that we had to improvise on all stages of manufacture. 

COVID was a major disruptor in many ways, but for us, it let us think on different lines and we could, by incremental improvements day in and day out, develop the first prototype. The TEAM came up with some wild modifications to the process and product, ultimately resulting in a product that passed all the required tests by the users.  Now that we have created enough interest in the product, and sensing the potential of the product, we are planning a new fully automatic production facility.

How does your work benefit society?

My passion has always been for Natural Rubber and I have vouched for it in all forums I get to speak in, as I believe that natural products are more sustainable and greener than the synthetics. This encouraged me to develop the Natural Rubber based Isolator glove. Now that sustainability is becoming the buzz word, it would be more relevant in future. 

Currently, I am working on using Graphene in Rubber and trying to adapt spray-on-fabric Technology to a spray-on- gloves or something similar. Polymers, not just Rubbers are a potential area to work with and there is a lot of scope for research in this area. 

Tell us about your most memorable work

The highlight, I would say, of my career would be starting up the R&D centre and getting it approved by DSIR. Research was always my passion and I have always been technically inclined, but putting up a centre exclusively for the purpose was a dream come true.

What is your biggest learning in your entire career?

To build up a career that you love, you need to have a great team. A team does not become great on its own, you create one. To create one, just stand back, encourage the members, be positive when anything goes wrong, and appreciate them for even minor successes.   I have always tried to keep my team together and engaged them, and it has paid off. Looking back, the development of the Isolator glove, with the limited resources that we had, would not have been possible without the dedication of my Team. 

What is your career advice to young professionals?

Looking back, I am satisfied with the way it has turned out for me, professionally. I always take life as it comes, but never waste an opportunity when it comes, and I believe it is always nicer that way!. It is better than planning your every move, and then getting frustrated and feeling useless when it doesn’t turn out the way you dreamed! We have no control over the future and to lament on your decisions, will just pull you down… get up and walk away. My decision to quit the high-tech tire industry and join the fledgling low-tech latex industry was taken as foolish by many, but I was clear on my priorities, work-life balance. Talking about work-life balance, it may not seem that important in the early days of one’s career, but the investment you make on this pays off later. I fell in love with the latex industry and still love to work on improvements and share my experiences with others. To keep the spark going, it is always necessary to learn new things and to share your knowledge. I have always been keen on that and have learned a lot from such discussions. Learning is a never-ending process. Always makes use of all opportunities to learn, be it formal or informal. I earned my MBA and an ME (by research), during my term at PRIMUS. It’s fun to mix formal learning with your job. 

Future Plans?

My future plan is to be in the consultant space and to mentor and advice people on Rubber, R&D and Management, where I have my core competency. Maybe I would also start my research on Bioplastics which I had narrowly missed due to professional engagements on the date of the entrance test!