After training and working abroad, medtech entrepreneurs are coming back to India with health care solutions to serve the Indian market, especially the country's poor.
Startups Strand Life Sciences and Cellworks, meanwhile, are among the companies working on next-generation predictive methodologies to create novel drug delivery platforms.
Strand Life Sciences developed a virtual human liver and has licensed it to more than 1,000 labs around the world, roughly half of them in the United States. “We can read an entire human genome for $1,000 and within two hours,” claimed chairman and CEO Vijay Chandru. “The industry needs a robust, predictive method that integrates data and insights from multiple in vitro methods.”
Strand’s design is “based on mathematical modeling of the kinetics of essential biochemical pathways involved in the functioning of the liver,” Chandru said. Company researchers combed through the medical literature and other documentation to understand those pathways.
“We now have a model of the human liver which is really a systems biology model” for predicting toxicity levels in the human liver, said Chandru.
|Vijay Chandru, chairman and CEO of Strand Life Sciences, which has licensed its virtual human liver
to more 1,000 labs worldwide.
Therapeutic-technology design company Cellworks was launched by EDA veterans from Synopsys and Cadence. “Our approach is to use proprietary technology that allows emulation of disease physiology through simulations and predicts clinical outcomes,” said Cellworks CEO Taher Abassi, a veteran of both U.S.-based EDA companies. “The semiconductor business has almost 99 percent success in first-time-right silicon based on simulating the design across different abstractions, and we intend to do this in the simulations of disease physiology and biology.”
|Taher Abassi, CEO of Cellworks and co-author of the books Logic Synthesis Using Synopsys and It's the Methodology, Stupid!
Sham Banerji, who led the Texas Instruments team that designed the first DSP chip in India, went on to found startup i2i TeleSolutions, which provides health care solutions on PC and mobile platforms. The U.K.-educated engineer has pioneered new models for health care delivery for tele-ophthalmology, remote cardiac monitoring and telesonography.
While India has become a hotbed for medical electronics startups and research, its R&D infrastructure lags that of established innovation hubs in other regions of the world, and attracting investment remains a hurdle.
“Early-stage funding is difficult for several sectors, and it is more so in the life sciences domain,” said Raja Kumar, founder and CEO of private equity firm Ascent Capital. “The VCs are driven by exits, and in the biomedical domain, the exit-related challenges are many. But if there is a really interesting business model, we would not be averse to investing.” Kumar funded Strand Life Sciences when he headed UTI Ventures.
|Raja Kumar, founder and CEO of Ascent Capital and former head of Strand Life Sciences investor UTI Ventures.
Hemant Kanakia, formerly of Columbia Capital in the United States and currently a member of the India Angel Network, an investor in early-stage companies, noted that as many as 12 medical startups attracted early-stage funding over the past year. “We came close to investing in about three of them, but some of them had pretty high valuations with which we did not agree,” Kanakia said.
Indeed, companies like Invictus Oncology and Mitra Biotech, led by U.S.-trained scientists and engineers, have raised startup funding with relative ease. The key for them will be attracting investors when they seek to scale up their operations.
Invictus, Sengupta said, “did not have much difficulty in obtaining funding, probably due to the kind of profile we have. But I am sure there are many startups struggling for seed capital in our industry. There has to be more initiative in terms of government support for innovation.”
That view was echoed by Ajaykumar Sharma, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan. “Indian scientists are as good as their Western counterparts,” he said. “The only drawback they have is the lack of infrastructure and of staunch support from the government, as well as from academia.”
He provided the following analogy: “You can own a Ferrari in India, but to even attempt driving it on Indian roads [requires] extremely smart and skillful drivers. Indian scientists are intellectually very smart and highly capable, with great mathematical skills, but they tend to break down on Indian roads.”
If the government and the VCs pave the road to innovation, there are plenty of medical electronics startups here ready to take the wheel.
Sufia Tippu is a Bangalore-based journalist and a regular contributor to EE Times.