Piramal, the Indian conglomerate that recently invested $650m in Vodafone, plans to invest at least $1.5bn to expand aggressively its overseas pharmaceuticals business as it seeks to become the country’s first global drug developer.

Ajay Piramal, chairman of the family-owned company, said that it planned to acquire several ailing midsized biotech companies and patents as well as enter joint ventures with big pharmaceutical groups that are struggling to develop new drugs in western markets because of rising costs.

The Indian billionaire, who has been looking for investment opportunities since the group’s healthcare unit sold its generic drugs business to Abbott Laboratories of the US for $3.7bn last year, said he was focused on expanding mainly in North America and Europe.

Mr Piramal said that he had already been in talks with a number of big pharmaceutical groups in the US and Europe and hoped to announce the first major deal within the next six to 12 months. He declined to name the groups involved.

We are looking to invest $1.5bn in biotech companies that don’t have enough money to expand … [and] to buy patents that pharma companies in the US and Europe that are not developing new drugs because of research and development constraints,” Mr Piramal told the Financial Times.

However, he stressed that he did not plan to acquire western companies to relocate them in India. “We do not want to become an Indian drugs outsourcer … we want to become a major player … which means we will buy and form partnerships with existing global companies.”

Mr Piramal said he was seeking to merge India’s high research standards with the scientific expertise and cutting-edge drug-developing technology predominant in the US and Europe market.

Piramal Life Sciences, one of the group’s subsidiaries, has already been working to develop 14 molecules it currently controls into new drugs in areas including cancer, diabetes, inflammation and infectious diseases.

However, the billionaire said that it would be difficult to develop all the drugs from India and it would be necessary to have a presence in developed economies to gain the necessary testing and clinical approvals to put the drug on the market globally.

India’s low-cost research and production facilities, plus traditionally weak intellectual property regime, have encouraged the development of a strong generic pharmaceutical industry, but the lack of expertise has prevented companies from making their own drugs.

“The country historically lacked the expertise to perform clinical trials because most companies only tested different processes for producing copycat versions of western products and the rules were quite lenient,” a report from PwC said.

Mr Piramal said that by joining forces with global companies and by acquiring biotech businesses with high growth potential they would be able to address many of the concerns voiced over Indian groups’ ability to develop their own drugs.

“What we are planning to do has never been done before, but following talks with a number of big companies I believe this will be the beginning of a new trend in the industry …[in the future] we’ll see more Indian companies tying up with or buying patents from global pharma groups.”

Mr Piramal said that he remained committed to India as a growth market – where the consumption of drugs is expected to boom as the nation’s middle class expands. But he stressed that the group would be mainly focus on its over-the-counter business.

He also said that it would keep only the 5.5 per cent stake it acquired in Vodafone Essar, the Indian subsidiary of the UK group, for a short period.

Piramal had been granted options under which it could sell its Vodafone Essar stake to the UK group for $900m in two years’ time, according to people close to the matter.

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