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.
“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.
“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]