Getting educated in two unconventional but potential courses of the medical stream, Veena Kohli, Founder and CEO, Vanguard Diagnostics, encourages start-ups in the MedTech sector. Kohli, the recipient of Start-up of the Year 2022 award by the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers, Tells Education Post’s Tanay Kumar that a convergence of diagnostic and pharmaceuticals is inevitable in the coming 25 years.
You studied two unconventional courses from AIIMS, New Delhi: Bachelor’s in Human Biology and Master’s in Pharmacology. Please tell us about these two courses.
Like a majority of students in the 12th standard with Biology as a subject, I had an objective to enter a medical school to pursue an MBBS course. I was, however, not obsessed with it. In our times, there was a common all India entrance exam for MBBS and Bachelor’s in Human Biology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, which I cleared successfully and decided to pursue it.
The first year of both the streams covered foundational subjects like Anatomy, Physiology and Biochemistry, providing us with the necessary foundation in medical sciences.
As the second year began, we were exposed to a diverse range of subjects such as Pathology, Microbiology, Pharmacology, Biophysics, Reproductive Biology and Biostatistics. These courses were carefully designed to prepare us to be high-quality scientists and researchers. While many of my peers chose paths in pure research, I found myself increasingly drawn to the drug industry and thus decided to specialize in Pharmacology during my third year.
To pursue my Master’s in Pharmacology at AIIMS, I had to go through another all-India entrance exam. I was delighted to secure a seat in Pharmacology. It took me a step closer to my ultimate goal. While at AIIMS, I always visualized myself working at the highly-reputed Ranbaxy Laboratories Limited – the very first Indian multinational pharmaceutical company.
Immediately, after completing my masters, I joined the diagnostics division of Ranbaxy at the time of its inception. I was entrusted with significant responsibilities, heading various key functions like R&D, Quality, Manufacturing, and Technical Services during my enriching 19-year tenure.
Subsequently, I received an opportunity to lead the India business as Vice President at Ranbaxy Fine Chemicals Limited (RFCL) and was able to demonstrate remarkable growth in business. In 2010, RFCL was acquired by an American company, and I was appointed as the Global Head and Vice President for the diagnostics business unit.
In this role, I strategized the business operations across the US, Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, while leading a diverse team of professionals from multinational and multicultural backgrounds. I believe that it is not a particular course or stream but one’s passion and determination that ensure success in life.
It boosts a woman’s morale if she finds family support on her entrepreneurial journey. Please tell us about your family members and how was your mother’s role in your journey?
I grew up in a middle-class family where education held the utmost importance. At the age of nine, I was selected through an All India Merit Scholarship exam, which opened the doors for me to study at the renowned residential public school, Maharani Gayatri Devi Public School, Jaipur, without placing any financial burden on my family.
At a time when societal norms often prioritized marriage for girls, my mother stood apart. She firmly believed in the power of education and encouraged my sisters and me to complete our studies and achieve financial independence before contemplating marriage. Therefore, my mother played a very crucial role in shaping my perspective towards my career. Additionally, my brother, an IITian, has been a constant guide and mentor throughout my journey.
After getting married, I was fortunate to receive extraordinary and unconditional support from my husband and children throughout. My husband, a passionate professional himself, has been an unwavering pillar of strength, being my rock in times of challenges. My two children have also played a significant role, keeping me updated with the latest trends and technology, ensuring that I stay relevant and adaptable in the rapidly changing world.
You chose the area of In-Vitro Diagnosis as your business domain. Please tell us some other areas where enthusiasts of biomedical/medical devices must keep an eye as per the country’s needs.
1. The Covid-19 pandemic ushered in many paradigm shifts in our lives. For instance, the shift towards online healthcare services, remote consulting and home delivery of medicines. This has set the stage for home-use diagnostics and Point of Care Tests (POCT).
These POCT/ home use tests can easily be supplied and used in rural and remote areas of the country as they:
- Do not require a laboratory set-up or skilled manpower
- They do not require electricity and can run on batteries
- A majority of them do not require special temperature conditions during transport and storage amongst other well-known advantages
Globally, the POCT/home-test kits have evolved and their applications have expanded significantly; ranging from a blood glucose test, initial screening for HIV, cancer and Alzheimer’s to over-the-counter genetic testing kits.
The global market size of these diagnostics products is estimated to be ~ US$ 15 Bn.
The consumption of home diagnostics in India, on the other hand is limited to pregnancy and blood glucose testing with ovulation testing gaining some ground during the past ten years. There is therefore an unmet need in the market for this segment of diagnostics products.
2. The future of the diagnostics industry lies in the development of more sensitive, faster, user-friendly, IT-capable devices. Since diseases are now understood at a molecular level, we need to focus on tests that can detect new proteins and molecular markers. Every drug known in the world produces therapeutic effects in 66% of the population, while the remaining 33 -34% of the consumers only suffer its side effects.
This is the fact on the basis of which the concept of companion diagnostics emerged, which aims to customise the treatment to be administered to each patient, depending upon the outcome of a novel diagnostics test, ensuring that the patient only benefits from the therapeutic effects of the drug with minimal side effects.
In healthcare, during the next 20 to 25 years there is likely to be a convergence of diagnostics and pharma for the addressal of every type of disease under the category of personalized medicine or pharmaco-diagnostics.
3. In addition, genomics and next-generation DNA sequencing for a deeper genetic understanding of cancer and other diseases should fast be adopted into clinical diagnostics from pure research in our country.
You led the Association of Diagnostics Manufacturers of India (ADMI) and we all are aware of the long existing industry-academia gap. So, are the industries aversive towards bridging this gap? And if it is not true, how should colleges and education institutions pitch to the industries for collaboration?
Necessity is the mother of invention – the significance of a successful industry-academia linkage was well demonstrated and acknowledged by the Indian diagnostics industry and the academia alike, during the fight against the Covid pandemic.
We need to take a leaf from this experience and ensure that the industry continues to leverage the treasure-trove of technologies and expertise lying locked in the reputed academic institutes and research bodies of the country such as IITs, AIIMS, ICGEB, CCMB, BIRAC, DBT and ICMR amongst many others.
The industry had suggested to the Govt. to generate structured platforms to facilitate the convergence and collaboration between the Industry and academia. It is very encouraging to see that this point finds a place in the National Medical Devices Policy 2023 of India.
Through such collaborations, the industry can benefit in three major ways:
- To get easy access to technology
- To make critical raw materials locally available
- To foster skill development
By offering essential internship semesters for students in fields like Biomedical Engineering, Medical Microbiology, and Molecular Biology, the industry can nurture talent and provide students with valuable real-world experience. This, in turn, can encourage more students to consider a career in the industry, while also granting the industry access to qualified and skilled human resources.
India needs more entrepreneurs in the MedTech sector – an arena of your deftness. Please tell us reasons why this sector is good for entrepreneurship and what are biggest challenges in this sector that entrepreneurs should be aware of?
The Indian Medical Devices industry presents a compelling investment opportunity with a promising outlook for growth and potential in the coming decade.
- High growth potential: The impact of COVID-19 has significantly heightened awareness about health and wellness. Furthermore, the burden of chronic and lifestyle-related diseases such as Diabetes mellitus, cardiac disorders, and others is rapidly increasing. These factors, combined with the growing interest in health management, are projected to drive the market at an impressive growth rate of 20% over the next 10 years.
- Sunrise sector: The Indian government has recognized Medical Devices as a sunrise sector due to its rapid growth. As a result, the government has introduced various schemes and initiatives, including the Production Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme and the establishment of dedicated medical devices parks, to support and incentivize indigenous manufacturing.
In addition, the government is committed to fostering research and innovation in this sector through the Promotion of Research & Innovation in the Pharma MedTech (PRIP) sector plan, with an allocation of Rs. 5000 Crore over a period of five years.
Entrepreneurs entering the medical devices industry at this stage can expect to receive significant support and impetus from the government.
- Need for new technologies: The post-Covid era has witnessed a rapid surge in new and emerging technologies within the medical devices sector. Technological shifts create opportunities for start-ups and new ventures, as existing large players may struggle to adapt swiftly to the changing landscape.
One of the major challenges the industry currently faces is its heavy dependence on imports, particularly in the instrumentation segment. Start-ups that can contribute to reducing this import dependence have great potential for success.
Presently, the industry remains 80% reliant on imports due to various factors:
- Non-availability of technology in our country in this segment. Technology needs to be imported.
- This coupled with negligible availability of components and spare parts required for the manufacturing of instruments, churns out a double whammy.
- With the exception of a few components like boards and algorithms, all other components need to be imported with high import duties.
In conclusion, the Medical Devices industry is on the cusp of remarkable growth, driven by the increasing demand for advanced healthcare solutions, government support through various initiatives, and the potential for technological innovation. Entrepreneurs venturing into this space have an opportunity to play a vital role in shaping the future of healthcare and contributing to India’s self-reliance in the medical technology sector.