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.
When former Intel CEO Craig Barrett visited India six years ago, he predicted that health care innovation would be a key driver of semiconductor growth.
In a way, Barrett was right. But what he didn’t envision was a scenario in which Indian expat scientists and engineers would return home bearing a troika of medical knowledge, high-end technology and innovations that could make Barrett’s vision a reality.
Among the innovations are nanotechnology–based platforms that zero in on the molecular structure of malignant cells, promising development of next-gen drugs that would be affordable in emerging markets; disposable, fabric-based chips, their circuit patterns woven in silk; saliva tests to determine a patient’s risk of heart disease; and therapeutics design companies that use simulations to predict clinical outcomes.
Most Indian medical electronics startups are founded by medical or engineering professionals, many of them trained at Harvard, MIT or Cambridge. After studying and working abroad, this new wave of entrepreneurs has come to India to develop products specifically for the Indian market, especially the country’s poor and underserved. Their aim is to provide convenient, affordable solutions for the diagnosis and treatment of disease by combining traditional research methodologies with emerging technologies.
Among them is Shiladitya Sengupta. After completing his pharmacology studies in New Delhi, Sengupta left India for the United Kingdom to pursue a PhD at Cambridge University’s Trinity College. Today, he divides his time between the United States, where he holds an appointment at Harvard, and India, where he has co-founded startups Vyome Biosciences and Invictus Oncology.
“Our personal focus [at the startups] is on cancer and diabetes,” Sengupta said. “[Today’s] treatments are not cheap and are loaded with side effects. Our aim is to use next-generation technology to develop new drugs. People say you cannot discover drugs in India, but we are trying to prove otherwise. You just have to put a topnotch team of scientists and medical professionals [in place].”
Vyome Biosciences focuses on skin biology and uses nanotechnology to promote wound healing. Invictus Oncology is working on next-generation cancer drugs. “It is estimated that over 40 percent of the Indian population will be afflicted by diabetes [in their lifetime], and 15 percent [of those patients will be] affected with diabetic sores” that won’t heal, Sengupta said. Today, amputation is frequently the only option. Meanwhile, “cancer is going to hit one in three females and one in five males in India,” he said. “Our nanotechnology-based platforms will target the source of the ailment and develop drugs that home in on the molecular structure of skin biology [for wounds] and malignant tumors, and spare other tissues.”
|Shiladitya Sengupta, Harvard professor and co-founder of Vyome Biosciences and Invictus Oncology.|
Dhananjaya Dendukuri and Suri Venkatachalam, co-founders of two-year-old medical diagnostic startup Achira Labs, have developed a proprietary lab-on-chip that can perform a range of tests, including scans for thyroid, diabetes and infertility issues. Like Sengupta, the Achira Labs founders spent time overseas: Dendukuri was trained at MIT; Venkatachalam was trained in Sweden and the University of California, San Diego. Their company’s chip platform is designed to deliver diagnostic results within minutes of testing, allowing rural patients to receive immediate medical care. A pilot project is expected to start this year, and a product could be ready in 2013.
“Not having access to diagnostic facilities has been the bane of India’s rural population,” noted Dendukuri. “Our focus is: If you can’t come to us, we will come to you.”
Achira Labs is developing more than just a lab-on-chip; the startup uses silk yarn to create integrated fabric-based devices. “We strongly believe that silk weaving not only can be used to build a low-cost, scalable platform for chip manufacture but also can create employment for weavers. We need a [disposable] chip, and we think that creating patterns in silk yarn with chemicals embedded in them will enable indicators of when fluid flows in a defined path,” Dendukuri said.
Achira Labs received a $1 million grant from Grand Challenges Canada last year that will be used to refine the fabric-based chip for medical diagnostics.
U.K.-born Sanjay Kakkar trained at Harvard Medical School and King’s College, London, then moved to India to set up a health care venture that has developed a simple, saliva-based test to determine a person’s risk for coronary disease. Kakkar’s efforts to provide a genetic test for heart disease come at a time when fatalities related to that ailment have reached an estimated 3 million per year in India.
Another Harvard Medical School alumnus, Pradip K. Majumder, co-founded Mitra Biotech, a Harvard-MIT spinoff focusing on cancer treatments. As a research fellow at Merck Research Laboratories in Boston and principal investigator at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, Majumder studied the role of two major signaling pathways on tumor dependency in both solid and liquid tumors.
“Our team is identifying biomarkers and novel technologies to stratify patients for anti-cancer agents, and also identifying and validating novel cancer targets,” Majumder said.
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