The digital revolution in healthcare has transformed the medical ecosystem in India. Today, with just a click or a tap, one can monitor every single change in a human body, right from heart rate and respiration rate to blood pressure and more. With the help of a digital microscope, it is even possible to capture high-definition images of a human body that reveal intracellular details.
But in spite of all these technological advancements, the Indian healthcare system is likely to benefit more from large-scale operations of India-based medtech players who can focus on resolving globally relevant challenges. Today, the healthcare system as a whole is trying to work towards faster and more efficient solutions in diagnosis and treatment. Early detection and diagnosis can greatly improve patient outcomes in most chronic cases. With the use of technology, specifically artificial intelligence (AI), it is possible to improve the speed of medical report generation, analysis and diagnosis for patients.
A major player that is working to improve patient outcomes and experience in India and globally is the medical technology company GE Healthcare. It has been providing medical equipment and tech solutions across Indian markets for more than three decades.
In 2019, the medtech giant also launched India Edison Accelerator Programme, an initiative through which the company forms strategic partnerships with growth-stage startups working in the healthtech space. Although it is called an accelerator, the programme collaborates more with startups to codevelop new healthcare applications, services and AI algorithms.
The India Edison Accelerator Programme has completed two cohorts, supporting 11 medtech startups in total. In a six-month-long programme, apart from a zero-equity cash grant of $10K per startup, the qualifying startups get mentored by GE Healthcare’s team of scientists and engineers to refine their products in terms of accuracy and efficiency as they integrate their solution with GE Healthcare’s platform Edison. The platform integration allows startups to play a key role in GE Healthcare’s global product strategy and also opens up long-term global commercialisation opportunities leveraging GE Healthcare’s global reach and customer relationships
In its second cohort, the programme had six medtech startups: BrainSightAI, Fluid AI, AarogyaAI, InMed Prognostics, Onward Assist and Wellthy Therapeutics. Let us take a look at how these startups are impacting Indian healthcare with innovative solutions.
Where Innovation Meets Startups
Founded in 2019 by Dr Rimjhim Agrawal and Laina Emmanuel, this Bengaluru-based startup works with neurosurgeons to enable functional mapping of the brain using resting-state fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). Simply put, fMRI measures brain activity by detecting changes in the blood flow. BrainSight has also developed a platform called VoxelBox that uses an artificial intelligence (AI) engine to reduce the time taken to prepare fMRI reports. With existing technology, it usually takes between one and two weeks to generate an fMRI report. But the platform claims to generate the same report under 24 hours and further adds analytical insights.
The startup has recently signed up with Max Hospital in Saket, New Delhi, to conduct its first clinical study. Earlier, it deployed algorithms for analysing dementia, brain tumour and schizophrenia.
BrainSight is currently closing a seed-round funding, but the startup’s journey was not devoid of challenges. The hospital it was working with turned into a Covid hospital, and the study had to be put on hold. The two founders had to reach out to doctors and patients online to continue with the research.
“The (accelerator) programme helped us a lot. We received technical mentorship that helped us understand how to build an industry-standard product. The clinical mentorship helped increase use cases and enabled our product to be market-fit sooner than we expected,” said Emmanuel.
The India Edison Accelerator Programme also helped the startup build a systematic path to get regulatory approvals. Collaborating with GE, BrainSightAI has deployed its workflow tool and the VoxelBox platform onto the GE platform.
This Mumbai-based startup is the brainchild of Abhinav and Raghav Aggarwal (brothers), two MBA students-turned-entrepreneurs. The duo were self-taught coders and found their calling while participating in a hackathon in 2012 that they won. One thing led to another, and in the same year, they set up Fluid AI, an insights and analytics startup that works cross-sector to find AI-based solutions for different business needs. At present, the startup is looking to enter the healthtech space.
In its early days, Fluid AI found it difficult to earn the trust of big brands and get them to realise the value of its product. Not wanting to give up, the startup offered a success-based fee model where clients were only required to pay if the startup’s solution helped their businesses. With this revenue model in place, the company soon started working with big brands like Forbes, ICICI, Toyota, Johnson & Johnson and many more.
Despite experiencing success early on, the founders believe that joining the GE accelerator programme has helped them in many ways. The collaboration enabled Fluid AI to improve the use cases of its product and helped the team build a brand narrative to get more recognition in the market. The programme also helped the startup find a use case in healthtech that captures anomalies in MRI data in real-time and can predict machine failure seven days before the actual occurrence, giving the machine owner enough time to take corrective action.
“The India Edison Accelerator Programme is one of the most well-organised programmes, and GE Healthcare’s efforts to guide the startup through every aspect were phenomenal. It really helped us in breaking barriers and entering the healthcare space to engage with hospitals, clinics and other stakeholders of the healthcare system,” said Abhinav.
After talking to several oncologists, Dinesh Koka and Vikas Ramachandra found that a major challenge most cancer specialists faced was the time it took to go through various patient data to decide on a suitable treatment. To address this issue, the duo set up Onward Assist in Hyderabad in 2017. The startup develops analytical tools to equip oncologists with processed information so that the doctors can make better treatment decisions without losing precious time.
Koka believes that the slow tech adoption in healthcare is a prudent measure to ensure that patients’ lives are only impacted positively. So, convincing physicians of a new solution is always a difficult task. But with the burden of data analytics increasingly falling on doctors and the medical staff, it is time to give medtech solutions a chance as many of them have the capability to improve patient outcomes.
Speaking of the accelerator programme, the founders say that the mentorship and the technical assistance have helped raise their understanding of the business and the product multifold.
Founded in 2015 by Abhishek Shah, Aradh Pillai, Maaz Shaikh and Prayat Shah, Wellthy Therapeutics has built a digital therapy platform where patients with certain medical conditions such as type 2 diabetes, clinical obesity, asthma, hypertension, heart disease and more can receive 24×7 care and monitoring. The platform provides patients with a regular physician’s diagnosis, gives access to caregivers who update patient condition reports several times a day and connects patients with paramedics who guide them to achieve certain health goals and also look at patient analytics to provide regular health insights.
Starting with basic social media outreach, the startup later pivoted to an enterprise model where it gets access to such patients through partnerships with pharmaceutical companies, health insurers and hospital systems. Wellthy has also reached out to doctors to partner with them on the platform. Shah claims that the word-of-mouth awareness coming from doctors has given the platform recognition and credibility.
“The India Edison Programme helps innovations and startups rapidly achieve scale through faster deployment, network effects and interoperability. Also, the mentors are always willing to share their insights and feedback, which we have found to be very useful in our road map creation,” said Shah on the role of GE in its growth.
Dr Latha Poonamallee, Rajesh Purushottam and A.L. Curran realised that processing MRI reports required a lot of volumetric analysis that delayed report generation and patient diagnosis, often leading to adverse outcomes. To resolve this pain point, the trio decided to set up InMed Prognostics in 2018 so that AI tools can be used to develop imaging biomarkers. With this solution in place, the company can provide early diagnoses and differentiated prognoses at a fast clip compared to manual analyses.
However, the new solution met with scores of rejections from investors as it was not seen as an essential upgrade to existing solutions within the Indian clinical settings. So, the bootstrapped startup started operating independently and offered its services to patients instead. When it had enough data to prove the value of its solution, the startup was finally able to win the trust of the investors and the healthcare community.
Calling the India Edison Accelerator Programme a ‘game changer’, Purushottam said that the clinical mentorship and various workshops have helped InMed understand the philosophy and mechanics of running a science startup. According to him, risk assessments across technical and clinical calls have helped the startup eliminate its blind spots and taught it how to contextualise the product to the market.
The startup now aims to expand to the US, South Korea, Japan, South East Asia, Australia & NA, West Asia and African markets. InMed also plans to increase its use cases from neurodegenerative disorders to acute conditions like stroke and traumatic brain injuries.
New Delhi-based AarogyaAI was set up in 2019 by Dr Praapti Jayaswal and Avlokita Tiwari to provide an early diagnosis of the fatal drug-resistant tuberculosis (DR-TB). The startup uses AI tools to detect the disease in a few hours and potentially saves lives. Its AI solution constantly learns and predicts new mutations that make TB drug resistance and prescribes specific drug combinations to combat the disease.
For both cofounders, the journey from academia to entrepreneurship was a challenging shift. Moving through the learning curve, they initially struggled to find investors for the project. But after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the startup’s relevance was recognised by many, and Illumina, a California-based biotech MNC, has backed it.
“India Edison Accelerator Programme played an important role in launching our SaaS healthtech product. The constant support, insights and assistance to remove every roadblock we faced helped us. Also, the mentors created market strategies for us and forged connections to key people in the ecosystem,” said Tiwari.
Challenges And The Road Ahead
A common thread connecting the startups mentioned above is the challenge they have faced in entering the healthcare sector. New entrants, new solutions and experimentation are rarely welcome in this sector as patients’ lives could be at stake. However, overburdened by patient load, the sector badly needs the support of new-age technologies that can enable healthcare workers to speed up the entire process and save lives.
This is where initiatives like the India Edison Accelerator Programme come in. GE Healthcare’s collaborative initiative has helped many growth-stage startups find the right path to the market and bring in their solutions jointly with GE. These Indian startups and many like them need nurturing and mentoring in their early days as they have the potential to bring transformative changes in the way modern healthcare functions.