During the course of working at various organisations and countries, molecular biologist Sooraj Ratnakumar found that science and research brought him great happiness. But, he didn't want to make it just another job. After a brief stint at a pharmaceutical company, Ratnakumar realised he was not meant for the nine to five routine.
His mother, K M Vani, a gynaecologist-obstetrician was pondering whether to resume her clinical practice.
Inception: April 2015
Founders: K M Vani and Sooraj Ratnakumar
Area of business: Molecular diagnostics
USP: The laboratory to offer tests for three different sarcomas - rate cancers of bone and soft tissue and molecular tests for T-cell ALL, a blood cancer that affects mainly children
That's when the idea of starting an advanced molecular biology lab hit them. "It was the perfect mix and now we are doing stuff we are passionate about," says Ratnakumar, who founded Swagene along with his mother.
Swagene started operations in April 2015 from Chennai. The knowledge-sharing laboratory, which spreads awareness on advanced-yet-affordable medical options to doctors and public, focuses on personalised medicine through molecular diagnostics.
"Everyone in the health care sector acknowledges that every patient behaves differently, responds to different drugs at different doses, while some end up with serious side-effects. Personalised medicine looks at a patient's genes and aims to bring down health care expenses by determining the drugs or procedures that are likely to work well, while preventing severe side-effects," Ratnakumar adds.
The company focuses on cardiology, infertility and oncology tests, looks at specific disease markers, and diagnoses and advises the patients and their doctors on how to proceed with the therapy.
For instance, detection of cancer markers during Swagene's cancer tests using molecular diagnostics would decide the right drug for the patient at a very early stage, and could be used to monitor treatment response during the cancer-free interval, and detect cases of relapse sooner, explains Ratnakumar.
The start-up's infertility and cardiology tests can be ordered online or over the phone. It sends a mouthwash collection kit to the patient's home and arranges for a return courier, too, thereby enabling patients across the country to avail themselves of its advanced personalised medicine at their doorstep.
One of the biggest advantages of molecular diagnostics, according to Swagene, is it is the most accurate and sensitive methods available. This means, diseases such as cancer can be diagnosed very early at treatable stage.
"Late diagnostics invariably leads to high treatment costs and higher failure rates. We are changing this proposition to a win-win for both patients and doctors," Ratnakumar says.
Swagene caters to patients from the southern states. According to Ratnakumar, the unique selling preposition of Swagene is its high-quality molecular diagnostics at the shortest turnaround time. "Our lab in Chennai can accommodate samples on a global scale. While about 50 per cent of our tests in infertility and cardiology are new to South Asia, we are even getting requests from Europe for these tests."
Challenges and potential
There are a dozen molecular diagnostic labs in India. Ratnakumar claims Swagene is the only science and quality-focused molecular lab that supports doctors and patients with knowledge and tools, in addition to giving easily-interpretable test reports.
The start-up faced many challenges while setting up the lab in an environment where value of research and efficacy of treatment by molecular methods is still at a nascent stage.
"Though our tests are highly-affordable for molecular diagnostics, they are still seen as expensive, which means we are running a very tight ship when it comes to innovation. But, transforming health care is Swagene's vision, and we hold that dear," he adds.
Swagene, which claims to be the first diagnostics lab in the country to have developed tests for three different sarcomas, rates cancers of bone, soft tissues and the first lab in India to have molecular tests for T-cell ALL, a blood cancer that affects mainly children, has been receiving enquiries from Punjab, Gujarat and other northern states. It is planning to add another three dozen tests to its portfolio, including infections, cancers, infertility and a couple of other specialties, in the 2016 calendar.
Till now self-funded, Swagene is in talks with a few venture capital firms and angel networks to raise funds. The noney would be used to spur research and development, marketing and achieve scale sooner.
According to various reports, the potential in personalised medicine is tremendous, with the US Food and Drug Administration mandating pharma cogenetic information on the drug labels for close to 200 drugs.
Surendra Mantena, chief operating officer of MedPlus Health Solutions, a big player in the pharmaceutical retail and pathlabs space, however, says pharma-cogenomics (or individualised medicine) where drug therapy is tailored based on a individual's genetic make-up, is at a very nascent stage and will take some time to evolve.
"If Swagene offers a broad range of tests, novel and existing, ensuring high-quality results, keeping up with the latest technology and investing in educating clinicians as to how its tests will lead to better diagnosis and treatment options for patients, they should do well," he says.
Swagene's concept of personalised medicine in various medical specialties is quite unique in India and is chalking a new path towards optimising patient outcome. It is also an apt business model in sync with the current scenario. Its viability and scalability, however, are yet to be proven and will depend on how its management steers the company.
The start-up is working across multiple medical specialties which are unique and different from what we see in the western world. My opinion is that this is necessary for a diverse country like India. The key challenges are in maintaining quality and ensuring the clinician health care professionals get able to keep pace with the exploding technology as well as its application.
The pace of scientific developments is so fast that one of the main challenges will be to distinguish, which of these is clinically-relevant and will remain important over a two to five-year window period. Our biggest need today is quick adaptation of technology and the ability to provide a reliable test result. Swagene appears well-positioned in this area. They need to increase their visibility and online presence so that a larger base of end users becomes aware of its capabilities.
Purvish Parikh is director (precision oncology and research) at Asian Cancer Institute, Mumbai