Personalized medicine(PM ) is a practice of medicine that makes use of an individual’s genetic profile to help make decisions as far as prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of diseases are concerned. It is based on dynamics of systems biology and uses predictive tools to evaluate health risks. Through the gradual acceptance of PM as the ‘next gen thing’ in the field of medical science, many medical products are being tailored according to an individual’s genetic content and after molecular or cellular analysis.
India, the home of Ayurveda, has pioneered personalized medicine since centuries. Personalized Ayurveda therapy has existed in India since the advent of this aspect of medical science. However, in modern times more and more biotechnology based innovations are coming up to help patients discover their genetic secrets.
Swagene, which is a Chennai based Startup was created with the goal of transforming healthcare, mainly through its innovations in the domain of Personalized Medicine. It Was founded by Dr.Sooraj Ratnakumar and Dr. Vani KM. Currently, Swagene is a team of seven which include Scientists, medical doctors and technologists.
Dr. Sooraj completed his PhD in Biotechnology from the University of Cambridge, and went on to do postdoctoral research at labs in the University of Washington, Seattle, USA and EPFL, Switzerland apart from Cambridge, UK. Dr Vani is a gynecologist-obstetrician with over 35 years’ experience in clinic and surgery in southern India and the Middle-East.
We interviewed Dr. Sooraj to know more about his venture and the nuances related to the field of Personalized Medicine.
TOS– How did the journey of Swagene begin and who all were involved in its inception?
Dr. Sooraj-After a decade in academia as a scientist, and a brief stint in a Swiss pharma giant, I wanted a different journey in life that has the capacity for massive impact on society. When I came up with the idea to start an advanced molecular genetics laboratory, Dr Vani wholeheartedly supported me and joined in. Several others in family, friends and the medical community gave us a leg up and we’re extremely grateful to them for their continued support and wishes.
TOS– It is often said that for going ahead with a venture in India, you need tough skin. As a first time entrepreneur what were the initial challenges that you faced?
Dr. Sooraj– Setting up the Infrastructure was the first challenge that we faced. Finding an appropriate location and then setting up the lab all by ourselves was quite a challenge in terms of finding the different vendors for interiors, furniture, equipment and other associated infrastructure. In spite of the challenges we were able to do it within 45 days!
Also, we started with molecular diagnostics in personalized medicine to differentiate ourselves. Everybody would like to know whether the medicine they are taking has got the desired curative effect on them This is especially so when it is being taken for long-term or for critical illness. Personalized medicine is where our genes reveal the right drug and dose for that person. However, the awareness and importance of personalized medicine is severely lacking in India. Creating the awareness and thereby creating a market for ourselves has been a huge challenge. But we’ve been generating revenues in this difficult niche from the beginning by establishing ourselves as thought leaders in molecular diagnostics.
Lastly, logistics was also a major challenge for us. Arranging the logistics of sampling, shipping and payment was not easy and we have to provide multiple means in order to cater to different customer tastes. While labs and hospitals are used to lab representatives collecting in person, we also have online/phone ordering for customers by shipping easy-to-use mouthwash collection kits.
TOS– Personalized medicine through molecular diagnostics is an evolving phenomenon and is still not popular with various stakeholders, partly due to lack of awareness.What inspired you to go ahead with this hitherto untapped area of medical science?
Dr. Sooraj- Swagene is likely the first lab in India that is focused on personalized medicine through molecular diagnostics. Personalized medicine acknowledges the differences among people and provides targeted therapy to the individual to maximize treatment success while also avoiding severe side-effects. The gap in the market right from awareness to availability and accessibility demonstrated a clear need to be filled by adequate expertise.Our credo is ‘excellence in science, excellence in service’.
About 50% of our tests are first-in-market to South Asia, borne out of extensive research into modern clinical trials. Only those biomarkers that have clinching evidence of dramatic improvement in treatment come out of our R&D into the market. Our reports are simple and easy to understand with pointers on how to use the results in treatment, and explanation on the test and biomarkers.
TOS– Currently, what are the high impact services that Swagene is providing?
Dr. Sooraj- We perform fertility tests,Cardiology tests and Cancer tests among others. Our fertility tests can identify a woman who is a poor responder to IVF treatment or who suffers from repeated miscarriages and suggest improvements. Our Cardiology tests help patients with high cholesterol, high blood pressure and those on blood thinners, which is almost everyone who has had a heart attack or stroke.
TOS–Did you receive any VC funding for your Startup?
Dr. Sooraj- Swagene is currently self-funded with support from the family and is heavily bootstrapped. At the same time, we have been generating revenue from the first month of operations (April 2015) in what is probably the hardest industry to penetrate and establish. Hence, with investment we are very confident of multiplying returns.
We’ve started looking for VC-funding in order to rapidly develop and transform healthcare through molecular diagnostics starting with India and moving on to becoming a global leader.
TOS– Though this has been a small journey, what are some of the major highlights of Swagene’s journey?
Dr. Sooraj- Though we have just started this journey we are planning to expand. We recently added blood cancer diagnostics, and we’re the first to offer quantitation of all markers which is useful to determine cancer burden, therapy response and very early detection of relapse. Recently, we won Conquest 2015, a Startup conclave organized in Bits Pilani. We’re recognized thought leaders in molecular medicine, and have been invited to speak regularly at national and regional conferences, as well as at seminars, CMEs and hospitals.
TOS– Finally, apart from work, what keeps you busy?
Sooraj– I love to travel. I have travelled extensively in two dozen countries. I enjoy hiking and was an avid dawn-to-dusk hiker in USA and Switzerland. I also love swimming and dancing. I’m a firm believer in diet and exercise to stay fit.