Viewpoint: Racing to Save Lives
Monday, September 28, 2015
Every day in India, people are going blind, not getting tumours detected, living with treatable chronic pain, not developing their brain cells, losing limbs, and dying while the solutions are stuck in the labs of some of India’s brightest inventors. These challenges are not unique to India, but the magnitude of potential lives to improve or save is. Innovation needs to accelerate, and the pathway from labs to patients needs to be shorter and easier.
Are there really promising innovations in the labs?
Yes. As an early-stage venture capital investor in health care, we have had the first-hand opportunity to talk with hundreds of entrepreneurs over the past two years who are working on developing many break-through health care products and services designed to meet the needs of the underserved masses in India. These include better ways of delivering life-saving, life-extending and life-enhancing services in low-resource medical environments such as: Eye-disease screening, anaemia screening, foetal monitoring, diabetes management, cardiac event interventions, early detection of cancer, detecting internal bleeding, detecting untreated STDs, and preventing misdiagnoses galore.
Why are health care innovations stuck in the labs?
Here’s the typical cycle for a health care inventor/entrepreneur. First, they see a need and they identify a promising conceptual solution. They then do some hard science and ultimately work on taking the concept into a prototype. And usually the prototype doesn’t fully work so they have to rework it multiple times. And then they try it with a few patients and find out that it needs further refinement, so it’s back to the lab. And so on. It’s an iterative process.
Iteration requires money (to keep the bills paid for entrepreneur and their support team, patent fees, etc), access to resources (such as equipment for testing, prototyping), access to patients and medical experts, and more. Health care innovation is not cheap.
Where do these resources come from? Savings of the entrepreneur along with generous friends and family only get them so far. They usually need to apply for grants and prizes (long cycles and lots of paperwork). And if they’re lucky, they find a friendly angel investor who will throw in a few lakhs. They may also try to pitch some venture investors, but very few will invest at this formative stage. And then there’s the begging for access to facilities and patients and experts which are all in high demand and are concerned about whether this company is going anywhere. Finally, there is often regulation and certification before things can be sold.