By Stephanie Buck, Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs
When a patient comes into a hospital with an indiscernible illness or infectious disease, doctors need test results fast. In an intensive care unit, a delay of a few hours can mean the difference between saving and losing a life. Historically, most health problems that result from an infection have required sending a sample to a lab for a culture, and it can take around three days to get the results of a lab back. But a small, female-founded team based out of Bangalore, India has developed a solution that uses molecular diagnostic testing to get accurate results for disease-bearing pathogens in just 90 minutes. And this startup has dreams to make this kind of testing as easy to access and administer as a home glucose test, with the goal of keeping patients out of intensive care units in the first place.
The solution Omix Labs has developed and is refining detects infectious pathogen DNA from a few drops of blood or urine (depending on the type of infection) on a disposable biochip. Their methods amplify the DNA of the pathogens so that they can be detected faster, and in a way that is temperature-stable. This type of testing — called molecular diagnostics — applies molecular biology to medical testing, analyzing DNA, RNA, and other markers to diagnose and monitor disease. Omix Labs’ solution is being tested and validated in several hospitals in South India and has the potential to change the face of diagnostic testing throughout the healthcare world. It could mean quicker, more accurate treatment to reduce the risk of complications and death for patients.
In addition to identifying disease-causing pathogens faster and more efficiently, they’re also expanding their platform to address antibiotic resistance. The molecular mechanisms they use look at the gene signatures from the pathogens to identify mutations and resistance to certain types of powerful antibiotics that are typically the last line of defense in ICU settings. And they’re continuing to develop this technology, to simplify the processes and make it even more accurate, more quickly.
When Sudeshna Adak started Omix Labs, along with her husband, Abhinanda Sarkar, she was advised against starting a diagnostics company, “and if you do diagnostics, definitely don’t do infections,” she was told. But she did it anyway. “If I’m going to start something, I’m going to start something about which I am passionate,” she said.
But as Sudeshna quickly learned — as do most startup founders — businesses can’t run entirely on passion. Sudeshna knew the urgency of the challenge that she was trying to solve: infectious diseases make up nearly 50 percent of the disease burden in India and affect children and poor people at higher rates. But trying to solve a problem that big meant that the initial proposals for funding lacked focus. She got rejected from the first two grants to which she applied.
So, she reached out to a former colleague from her previous employer, GE Healthcare, for guidance. GE connected her to a network of people from whom she was able to seek advice and begin to refine her ideas. As she did so, she applied for and received funding from the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), a nonprofit started by India’s Department of Biotechnology to help foster research and innovation in India’s biotechnology sector.
However, this was a difficult period for Omix. From January through December of that year, it seemed like everything that could go wrong, did. From technical challenges, to issues with the quality of their testing materials, to contamination. “Challenges are normal, but when it lasts for a year, people start to lose faith. That was the tough part.” Things started to turn around, but it still wasn’t easy. “In May 2018, Abhinanda and I were at an event in Delhi, getting turned down for our pitches. We sat in our hotel, discussing how we would run out of money by December of 2018, figuring out what we could do to survive. Survival is always the biggest challenge.”
But things did start to turn around. They won another grant and other awards. They were incubated at Villgro, India’s oldest and largest SE incubator, and then received their first round of investment from Villgro’s investment partner Menterra and are wrapping up their pilot and validation stage.
The biggest challenges now will be bringing the product to market. The co-founders are a team of scientists. While they plan to bring on a team of people who can help with the marketing, and good mentoring has helped them identify their niche to get the product off the ground, product development and product marketing are different things. There is now the added pressure of not just proving that their product works, but that people will buy it, and to prove to current and future investors that their money will be well spent. Yet, as they navigate this shift, they are encouraged by the feedback they’ve received from doctors and participants at medical conferences they’ve attended. They see how this product meets a critical need, that is what keeps them going.
Entrepreneurs like Sudeshna and Vishakha don’t operate on an island. There are strengths and weaknesses in the environment in which they are trying to grow their business. A government-supported grant through BIRAC provided important capital to get them started, but as Omix Labs has grown, they’re now running into outdated regulations about biotech company zoning, and will soon face new challenges as they seek access to new markets for their product. Villgro, a member of the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE), has played a critical role in providing mentorship and setting up access to investment. And if Omix Labs, and other startups like them, are to succeed, access to the right kind of finance will just be one piece of the puzzle. Nonfinancial support matters. Policy matters. Networks matter. ANDE and its members are working to address these systems-level challenges so that entrepreneurs solving today’s most critical challenges can scale their solutions and do the most good.
Stephanie Buck interviewed Sudeshna and Vishakha on behalf of ANDE, a global network of organizations that propel entrepreneurship in emerging market countries. ANDE members provide critical financial, educational, and business support services to small and growing businesses (SGBs) based on the conviction that SGBs will create jobs, stimulate long-term economic growth, and produce environmental and social benefits.