Published January 4, 2016
“It’s a market that’s suboptimally served, and there are global models for med-tech innovation that can be successfully implemented in India,” he says, seated in his Bangalore office.
India’s public health care system is weak, overwhelmed, and crumbling. Indians who can afford high-quality care at private institutions are willing to pay for it. But what about the rest? Dhanani wants to bring down the overall cost of care by helping entrepreneurs and engineers come up with low-cost devices. The cheaper the medical devices, the lower the overall cost of care, and the more people who can be treated.
“The goal is to create the world’s first portfolio of medical products designed, engineered, and priced for global emerging markets,” he says with enthusiasm.
While there are other incubators and programs for aspiring health care entrepreneurs in India, there are few resources for those who want to build equipment—not services or IT companies. InnAccel focuses solely on medical technologies. Currently the accelerator has two start-ups under its wing. Dhanani, however, has some audacious goals: By 2020, he aims to have 50 projects. And by 2025, he wants to have helped give rise to 25 new medical technologies.
“We are looking for entrepreneurs who are passionate about solving a big health care problem and impacting millions of lives,” he says. But passion is not enough. He’s interested in backing entrepreneurs who aren’t afraid to go out in the field, often beyond the metropolitan areas, to assess the needs of rural India."
“They should have the commitment to stick the course for five years or more and the passion to immerse themselves in the clinical environment, learning with humility the problems that exist on the ground,” he says.
Finding such individuals hasn’t been easy. InnAccel began in 2014. That year, Dhanani says, it screened 50 projects and countless entrepreneurs before selecting two ideas. “Most teams we find are unwilling to dirty their hands, and they’re working on input for one or two doctors only. That does not fit with our model.”
The two that did fit—Sattva and Coeo Labs—were looking at large-scale problems: 550,000 perinatal deaths in India and more than 600,000 patients affected by ventilator-associated pneumonia. In both cases, these are complications that can be avoided.
Nitesh Kumar Jangir and Nachiket Deval, founders of Coeo Labs, spent two months in emergency rooms and ambulances to learn more about VAP. They first learned about its severity when they saw a middle-aged man admitted to the ICU because of a head injury from a traffic accident. He was put on the ventilator for two days, but he was expected to recover after five days and go home. Unfortunately, in the process, he contracted pneumonia and died 10 days later.
“We were really shocked by the incident, and it was really unacceptable for us to see an avoidable death,” says Deval.
According to the two founders, India has more than half a million VAP cases every year, and about 200,000 become fatal. They dug into the issue further, looking at what causes the problem and developing a solution that emphasizes oral hygiene and manages secretion.
Often, patients in the ICU don’t have a working gag reflex; instead, they have secretions, which get contaminated by bacteria, causing them to contract pneumonia. Jangir and Deval’s invention detects the secretion and gets rid of it.
They will now take their product to hospitals for clinical trials. By 2017, after receiving global certification, they plan on launching it in the market.
Similarly, InnAccel’s other start-up, Sattva, has completed a prototype that will undergo testing in the major metro areas—Delhi, Pune, Mumbai, and Bangalore—next year. The final product, after necessary adjustments, will debut in 2017.
Sattva is tackling maternal health. India has 30 million pregnancies every year. About one-third are high risk, meaning they need to be monitored closely during labor, according to founders Vibhav Joshi and Sumedh Kaulgud. But 50 percent of the deliveries take place outside of hospitals, under the care of a midwife or field nurse. Joshi and Kaulgud developed Sattva Fetal Lite, a portable, lightweight device that can take an electrocardiogram of a fetus. With the product’s 24-hour battery life, the founders say it can work in low-resource settings or beyond the well-equipped corridors of a hospital. More important, it doesn’t require a doctor to operate it and interpret the results.
Both start-ups, however, say that building these kinds of prototypes can be a daunting and time-consuming process.
“Cheap and fast prototyping facilities are not easily available, even in Bangalore,” says Kaulgud. “Vendors are unreliable. We have to do two to three iterations for every prototype to solve quality issues. Turnaround time for hardware is a lot longer than for software.”
That’s why Dhanani wanted to put together a team of people who could support these entrepreneurs. InnAccel gives each project office space, labs to work in, and engineering and clinical experts to consult. It also invests up to $100,000 to have a functional prototype.
For a certified global product, that investment can go up to $1 million, says Dhanani.
The vision, he says, is to become leaders in med-tech innovation for global emerging markets. India is the launchpad.