Drama Mask Delusions

A unique profile

 

In healthcare, genetics has always been an interesting area, because it can give an early indication of several disorders, which have not yet manifested in the human body. Such disorders can be prevented, if detected at an early stage. “How­ever, genetics was classically ignored as an area of business because of lack of computing facilities (it’s all data)”, explains Abhimanyu Kumar and Susheel Singh, co-founders, Preven­tiNe, Mumbai, a company promoted by the two batchmates at HM-Cal- cutta, class: 2005. After their studies, Kumar and Singh went for a short stint with commercial and invest­ment banks like ABN-AMRO, Standard Chartered and JP Morgan Stanley (M&A), before starting their own venture in 2008.

“We wanted to do something unique. So, for over 18 months, we scanned the genetic and biotech hori­zon and looked for something where medicine is married into technol­ogy. We hit on the use of algorithms that can automate analysis. Preven­tiNe has a unique profile that falls somewhere midway between med­icine and software and has experts converging from the medical frater­nity (such as MBBS, MDs), research (Ph Ds), engineering (software) and laboratory technicians (with mas­ters degree), which looks at product development from the perspective of its market potential,” says Kumar who, together with Singh, has roped in K. Kumuda of Kumuda Infrastruc­ture as an angel investor. Through three rounds of funding, Kumuda has pumped in ?4.5 crore into the company till date.

Also, for scientific counselling, the company has James Shoemaker, professor & head, Edward A. Doisy department of biochemical genetics, St. Louis University School of Med­icine, US (the inventor of ‘One Step Metabolomics’, with an experience
of over 30 years in biochemical genetics) and Domingo Gonzalez-La- muno, professor, University Hospi­tal’s Marques de Valdecilla and head, Spanish Federation of Rare Diseases.

“The important factor was the profiles of promoters. They sounded clear in their vision about this space and seemed to be having the right resilience and energy for executing their plan. Today, we see that they have converted most of what they had in their plan. Although bio-tech- nology and genetics sounded new at that time, we could foresee that some good business can be made in this field after the information tech­nology revolution, which India saw several years back,” explains Reddy of Kumuda Infra, an infrastructure company with interests in turnkey projects, social welfare infra proj­ects, railways and mining, based in Chennai and Hyderabad.

Hidden disorders

“We have developed a proprietary technology, which tests a newborn baby for over one hundred genetic disorders at the time of birth. “These disorders are ‘hidden’ and manifest later in life, mostly after crossing the ‘reversible stage’. The only way to safeguard the baby is to test it soon after birth and prevent the disorder from manifesting,” says Singh, who rolled out the company’s first offer­ing called ‘Newborn Screening’ in 2009. Receiving 400-odd samples daily from across the world, the com­pany has grown to a ?18 crore outfit, with an operating margin of close to 50 per cent.

“After the completion of Human Genome project, it has become pos­sible to analyse the DNA of a person and figure out the mutations, which are the root cause of diseases that may or may not yet be apparent, but may manifest later in life,” explains Kumar. “The fraternity believes, more
so through the past decade that, one day, such preventive genetic tests are going to be available in the super­stores. People will buy these tests themselves and learn about their risk disposition to various diseases and take precautionary measures (med­ications, change in lifestyle, etc) in order to avert the disease or at least reduce its impact. One such mega company working in this area is 23 and Me (funded by Google). There are several others which have been trying to build a sizeable business in this,” he adds. “However, there is a fundamental problem with this class of genetic tests. This category of genetic tests gives ‘Probabilistic Results’. We are offering services in the area of high-end medical and lifestyle testing. The focus has been primarily in the area of genetics and more specifically in the area of metabolomics”.

Singh believes in the potential of wellness and do-it-yourself tests, but does not at this stage believe in tests that give probabilistic results for disorders. “Hence, we chose to work in a sub-area of genetics called metabolomics. In simple words, it deals with ‘metabolism’ of human beings. Metabolism is about ‘what is’, whereas genetics is about ‘what can be’. We have introduced a series of tests, which are deterministic and address health problems faced by a large class of population. They are affordable enough to be taken by large number of people and, above all, can also be picked directly by consumers, in addition to be routed through clinicians,” says Kumar, looking at building the company the way Thyrocare has occupied the mind space in thyroid. Similarly, the duo would like PreventiNe to serve the field of metabolism.

Today, “more people are becom­ing conscious about maintaining health and preventing diseases, than to suffer from it and then initiate a treatment. The boom with well­ness industry, reflective in growing chains of gymnasiums, skin clin­ics, eye clinics, weight clinics, health supplements and similar are indica­tive of the component of income that
people are now reserving for a better quality of body.

The growth in customer’s use of Internet for information and deci­sion-making is propelling selection of health diets and vitamins, without the interface of a health practitioner. The health activities, health tonics and supplements have found their space in customer’s direct decision making. Even basic wellness tests are being availed directly by consumers. Now is the turn of high-end ‘health tests’. Companies like PreventiNe, can do well in this market,” says Pri- yanka Kartari, a Mumbai-based clin­ical psychologist.

Global model

“In my last visit to India, I had an opportunity to visit PreventiNe in Mumbai and see how samples are processed and analysis done. In my view, PreventiNe’s technology and approach to genetic screening will be the benchmark of how genetic screening shall be done in the US and worldwide in the next few years”, observes Edward Karotkin, former
chairman, Newborn Screening pro­gramme, East Virginia, US.

Simultaneously, PreventiNe has also designed a globally scalable model. The problems with several laboratories across countries, which do newborn screening, is that they do not have the higher technology and have to send the second sample to the US for confirmation, paying over $1,000-1,500 and waiting for over four weeks for results. “Preven­tiNe has designed a model, wherein we could establish our technology in any laboratory in any country – get the sample processed in the equip­ment installed there, the data thrown by equipment on running the urine sample in the equipment is uploaded on dedicated secured server, that is downloaded and run through UTICA at PreventiNe central laboratory (Navi Mumbai), authenticated by MDs, uploaded back for the partner laboratory for communication to the hospital/doctor – in any lan­guage of choice. The test now costs about $80-100 and has a turnaround time of just 24-48 hours, based on the time difference from India,” explains Kumar.

Today, PreventiNe has five sam­ple processing centres worldwide – one in India (owned), one in Spain (partly owned), and one each in Aus­tria, Chile and Mexico (in collabora­tion). Samples from over 10 developed countries are being processed in the various laboratories on PreventiNe’s technology. Till date, PreventiNe has detected over 2,000 cases positive for genetic metabolic disorders. The advantage of being based in India gives access to a large pool of genet­ically diverse population; with com­monly found disorders which are otherwise considered very rare.

In the coming 18 months, the duo plans to ramp up the operations in India across 36 cities and enter the retail market with outlets. “Before we enter the next phase of growth, we need at least $8-10 mil­lion, and are looking at private equity as well as strategic investors,” sums up the duo.

♦ LANCELOT JOSEPH [email protected]

Facing a challenge

 

The College of Agricultural Sci­ences, Dharwad was founded nearly 70 years agobyrenowned scientist S.W. Nlenshinkai on the out­skirts of Dharwad in Karnataka. How­ever it took another four decades to become a full fledged university, UAS Dharwad (UASD). One of the lead­ing institutions in India which has engaged in high quality research, teaching and extension among farm­ers, todav the institution faces new challenges. To date it has released over 200 new varieties of crops.

Dr D.P. Biradar, a plant biotech­nology is the new vice-chancel­lor. He is not the one to sit on past laurels. He wants it to be a globally known institution that serves the needs of local farmers. “Post indepen­dence Indian agriculture was tradi­tional and was subsistence in nature, which was unable to meet the food demand of a fast growing popula­tion. Indian agriculture today has to work towards achieving nutritional security,” says Biradar. Technologi­cal intervention is the only option to achieve both national food and nutri­tional security. The area under arable land in India is not increasing and is currently hovering around 140-145 m ha. Therefore, growing not only high yielding crop cultivars, but also of better quality is important. A good example here is of Bt cotton.

hybrids but along with them we are also developing Bt cotton varieties suited to high density cultivation,” adds Biradar. Unlike Bt hybrids, when Bt varieties are released, the seeds can be reused by farmers – helping them

  • in the long-run. “Our varieties are
  • well adapted to the local environment ; including limited water environments ; both rain fed and dry land.”

Dryland is another major area where new technological interven­tions are required to adapt to abiotic stress (hot and dry climates). This includes drought tolerant crop culti­vars with the introduction of drought resistant genes, rain-water harvesting, soil conservation and mechanisa­tion that is suited to small hold­ings of Indian farmers. Here, there is greater collaborative opportu­nity for UASD to work with engi­neering colleges. The collaboration between plant biologists and engi­neers would address the problems related to labour scarcity, mechanised cultivation and harvesting of agricul­tural crops.

UASD has quite a few MoUs with outside institutions such as Texas A&M, Cornell University, USA; McGill and University of Manitoba, Canada; and many others including some Afri­can institutions. It has established an International Centre for Agricultural Development in Dharwad and has identified six themes for research with global partners. “We are now looking to develop collaborations with Asian and African partners. In fact, we now have an MoU with China and LUA- NAR, Malawi. In fact, we have been attracting students from Africa and the Middle East regularly.”

One of the issues facing UASD is the lack of agriculture graduates going back to farming. While the government has recently started a two year diploma course in agriculture, the numbers remain low. “We are encouraging our graduates to work closely with their farming families. I think both agri­culture graduates and diploma hold­ers need to be provided with a credit linkage by the banks so that they are encouraged to take up farming or agri­culture-related enterprise.”

♦ SHIVANAND KANAVI [email protected]

 

Out on a limb

John Pierpont Morgan, the leg­endary US banker and co-founder of jPMorgan Chase, who used his luence to stabilise the US finan­cial markets during the crisis of 1907, would have been horrified to hear Ajay Shetty, CEO, Myra Vineyards, saying that he left the cushy job at Merrill Lynch to start his own win­ery. “I found banking too mundane,” was Shetty’s explanation.

At the same time, Pierpont would have admired Shetty’s chutzpah too. “Well, no jobs are cushy,” Shetty had asserted. “I would say so, because every job needs commitment, ded­ication and focus and I had given that fully to my banking job as well. And, during my banking days, I had travelled to several countries, which exposed me to different cultures, people and cuisines and, not to miss, wines too. I wanted to do something more gratifying – something in the area of agri-business – and wine was a good option, given my passion, as also the gastronomical metamorpho­sis our country is going through. My love for food and wine gave me the confidence to enter this industry.”

However, Shetty’s Merrill Lynch background did give him an under­standing of India’s consumer base, especially regarding the new set of wine consumers. According to Euromonitor International, the Indian wine industry is looking bright and has been growing at 25

sensing growth

per cent. The present wine consumption in the coun­try is confined to key markets such as Mumbai (37 per cent), New Delhi (25 per cent), Goa and Banga­lore (9 per cent each), with the total volume consumed annually touch­ing 21 million litres.

What is adding to the volume growth of wine in India are the compa­nies and wine boards in Karnataka and Maharashtra, which have been taking various measures to promote the wine drinking culture, with tasting sessions, courses, accessories and tours, which eventually helped increase awareness and push wine sales.

So, Shetty took a gamble, investing ?6 crore from his own finances to set up a winery at Sriramapura, Bangalore, where the wines are made, bottled and distributed within Maharash­tra. He also set up another winery in Bijapur, Karnataka, where a total of 20-25 people are involved at dif­ferent stages from making wines to bottling to packaging. Working with four farmers – two from Maharash­tra and two from Karnataka – to ensure that the company supplies the best quality wines to the respec­tive states, Myra Wines is currently working on 100 acres of land and has a capacity to produce about 100,000 litres from these two states. “I don’t want to lie by saying I was not
worried or afraid to start my own business,” says Shetty. “But I sensed a great growth in the coming years, considering that new domestic and international brands are now being launched.”

With four brands – Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc (white), Shi­raz and Cabernet Sauvignon (red) – in three categories (high-end super premium, premium and entry level), Shetty is planning to introduce a cou­ple more brands in the next financial year. Myra launched two categories this year – Reserve in the super-pre­mium segment and two-headed bird at the entry level segment.

While Shetty intends to con­tinue to work with the farm­ers in Maharashtra more for logistics and taxation policy reasons within the state, his long-term aim is to build Karna­taka as a wine tourism destination, a la Yarra Valley, Australia, which indulges in life’s great pleasures – food, wine, scenery and inspiring arts – and imparts a lifetime of experience. Shetty would like to bring in a similar concept to his vineyards too.

What has caught his attention is that the country is witnessing a boom in wine tourism, as travel­ling to a vineyard is the best expe­rience one could have. “Maharastra and Karnataka are the two states that have maximum vineyards, which promote India as a wine tourism des­tination,” says Shetty. “My intention is to bring a similar concept to my vineyards also, matching the inter­national standards that could give our consumers an unforgettable and lifetime wine tour experience.”

Now this 18-month-old company, which expanded rapidly in Banga­lore, Mumbai, Pune and Goa, will extend to New Delhi and Pondich­erry too, by end of this financial year. It has plans to export wine to South East Asia in the near future.

“It is indeed challenging to market wine brands, in a non-wine-drink- ing country like India, with compli­cated tax policies in every state,” says Shetty. “And, for me, things just do not stop here.”

♦ ROBIN ABREU robin.abreu&businessindiagroup.com

 

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