Sindhu Hariharan – TNN – March 24, 2019 — THE IDEA: To develop tests in the personalised medicine space. Use machine learning-based statistical algorithms to ascertain the stage of cancer, and identify the risk of recurrence in earlystage patients.
EUREKA MOMENT: Dr. Manjiri Bakre, a PhD in cell biology from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), had a close friend who passed away at 30 within two years of being diagnosed with breast cancer. “This made me realise that we don’t diagnose the disease early enough and we need to know the tumour biology in detail to understand the progression and aggressiveness of the disease,” Bakre says. This prompted her to set up OncoStem in Bengaluru in 2011.
EARLY DAYS: Dr Bakre says arriving at an ideal business model, including pricing, was a bigger struggle than building the product. For funding, she looked at several options. She ruled out funds from corporate hospitals when she found them demanding exclusive access to her product. Bank loans involved lengthy procedures. So she focused on venture capital and eventually convinced Sequoia Capital and Artiman Ventures.
BIGGEST CHALLENGE: The most notable challenge, Dr Bakre says, was the lack of trust among Indians in ‘Made in India’ products. “There is a misconception that we cannot develop anything reliable in India. It’s really unfortunate that on the one hand we complain that all the new drugs and diagnostics developed in the West are expensive, and on the other, when there is a chance to develop something in India, we do not always lend a helping hand,” she says. OncoStem eventually managed to make progress with the support of a “few good hospitals with visionary leaders and excellent clinicians.”
WHERE THE STARTUP IS NOW: The venture has raised $9 million in funding from Sequoia Capital and Artiman Ventures, and is currently working with over 10 hospitals and two large diagnostic chains in India. This year it will expand its AI-powered tests to South East Asia and the Middle East.
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