Special Startup Series: Affordable diagnostic kits for early stage cancer detection

Considering the importance of early detection of cancer for saving lives, Pune based biotech startup, FastSense is developing affordable devices for diagnosis of this dreaded disease

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There are an estimated 2.25 million cancer patients in India. Close to 12 lakh new cancer patients are registered with the healthcare system every year. The cancer-related deaths during 2018 itself stood at 7,84,821 lakh. All these statistics point out towards the expanding menace of various types of cancers due to a host of issues, ranging from the wrong lifestyle, bad eating habits and air pollution to hereditary or genetic factors.

The only possible way to cut down on the number of cancer cases is detection at an early stage. However, in our country, more than 70 percent of cancer-related deaths are due to late diagnosis which results from expensive technology and lack of enough diagnostic centers with such capabilities. Therefore, the portable early detection devices could provide a solution to a large target population as they could be easily screened for any possible threat of cancer onset.

Working on the same ideology, the Pune based startup FastSense Diagnostics has been engaged in developing affordable, portable rapid on-chip, electrochemical early diagnostics systems for complex diseases such as cancer.

Founded by Dr Preeti Nigam Joshi and Mr Harish Joshi, the company has developed an intensive in sensor development and has created a complete set up to develop various electrochemical sensing systems. This medtech startup can provide easy, cost-effective solution for any sensing need including impurities in foods and beverages, environmental applications and sensors for medical needs.

FastSense Diagnostics Founder, Dr Preeti Nigam Joshi (right) with her colleague.

An engineer by education, Preeti did her doctorate in engineering with a focus on biosensing platforms, MEMS and microfluidics and has vast experience in drug delivery systems and nano-bio-technology. She calls FastSense a kind social enterprise as well because of its focus on affordable healthcare for all as in our country even basic healthcare facility is still a distant dream.

Overcoming initial challenges 

On being asked about the challenges she had to face to sustain her startup, Dr Preeti Nigam Joshi, Founder Director begins her response on an optimistic note saying that despite hiccups, if the efforts are sincere, gradually everything falls in place.

She goes on to add: “Funding obviously did not come in the first attempt, so this was a problem at a point in time before I was awarded Biotech Ignition Grant. Business ideas are like a living being which has multiple organs and a brain. You can be the brain of your company but you need organs too and that’s where mentors play a role.”

Preeti who also feels that for women entrepreneurs to create a balance between family and not so easy journey of entrepreneurship is a huge task and really difficult at times. “One expects continued support in terms of funding especially in initial 2-3 years, as this is the period the startup needs to develop a critical mass and like a baby this is minimum period startup begins to crawl if not walk,” she says.

Preeti lists guidance and support in finance, contracts, marketing and sales as much needed supports as technology experts like her often lack these auxiliary skills and sometime they take more bandwidth than main work and it reduces the speed of reaching out to the market. She appreciates mentoring from IKP Knowledge Park as very helpful to plan her work and it also kept her updated about the new events and called to showcase their work and fundraising.

Founders of FastSense credit mentors in National Chemical Laboratory based Venture Center including Dr Premnath, Dr Manisha, and Dr Priya besides Ms Deepanwita, Dr Viswanadham and Dr Ramjee at IKP. Apart from that she says, the company has a good advisory panel comprised of Dr Rajiv Prakash IIT-BHU, Dr Shailendra Mishra of Texas University USA.

“Incubation wasn’t a challenge for me as NCL innovation Park was most suitable for me keeping in mind my family set up in Pune though I am extremely grateful from the generous support,” informs Preeti as she praises flagship scheme of BIRAC, “Biotech Ignition Grant is a great initiative because it is outcome based and brings in efficiency for every $ of govt money injected in the system will have a higher return on investment than anything govt has tried till now in terms of innovation.”

R&D focus & motivation behind it

Based on the fact that the early diagnosis is key to cancer survival, the primary focus of FastSense is to develop a portable and affordable, point of care early detection kits for cancer. Currently, the company is focusing on single cancer detection but it would expand its platform technology to other applications as well along with cancer detection.

“Motivation is many times the helplessness that we all sometimes experience in our lives when we can’t control certain outcomes, says Preeti adding, “and that same helplessness becomes your guiding force to come up with something that will help negate your helplessness.”

Dr Preeti lost her mother to cancer and what the concerned doctor told her became a source of motivation for her. She explains: “Doctor said if we could catch it early we could have given her few more years for sure. Those few more years could have been enough for my mom to play with my daughter, who was just born, The word ‘catch it early’ got stuck to my mind and has become my foundational story and foundational problem statement.”

Way Forward

The company’s two products are currently at the prototype stage and their commercialization is at least 12-18 months away. Since the product involves complex diseases prediction, it will go through multiple regulatory steps apart from clinical trials.

“As per our current understanding, our tests cost is going to be lower than the existing tests and as doctors, path labs, hospitals and NGOs are end users so device cost is also not an issue. Rest once products succeed in terms of clinical trials/efficacy, the cost can further be reduced,” assures Preeti.

The company intends to have three to four product lines around diagnostics and bring Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning components in diseases prediction model besides venture into Ayush related innovation.

FastSense is eyeing Indian cancer diagnostics products market worth $2.0 billion and global $60 billion markets. The company expects to generate a revenue of around $4-5 million in the next 24 months.

We wish the founders of FastSense a very fruitful journey ahead!