Special Startup Series: Affordable diagnostic platform for cervical health testing

Pune based Periwinkle Technologies is using its highly focused research and development for the creation of an indigenous yet cost-effective product for cervical health testing

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Smartscope CX

According to the World Health Organization, more than 2.5 lakh deaths globally are attributed to cervical cancer, with 85 percent occurring in developing countries like India. An estimated 1.32 lakh new cases are diagnosed annually in India and 74 thousand deaths are reported. India, therefore, accounts for almost one-third of the global cervical cancer deaths.

Now being more specific, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in the country among women aged between 15 and 44 years. Despite this, there continues to be a major gap in the awareness levels in women regarding screening especially while still asymptomatic. This further results in delayed diagnosis when the cost of the treatment becomes exorbitant. In such a backdrop, the pro-active and periodic cervical cancer screening can help to identify the disease in an asymptomatic person and therefore spot the disease in its earliest stages when it is the easiest and most likely to treat.

Aiming to provide an answer in the form of a comprehensive indigenous solution is the Pune based medical technology startup, Periwinkle Technologies. The primary focus of the company’s current research and development efforts has been the development of an affordable technology to screen the cervical cancer patients. As a result of their dedication to the cause, the team has been able to come up with the Smart Scope CX – an Artificial Intelligence based product for cervical health testing which every gynecologist would prefer to have. The further work on improvisation is happening in three areas – hardware for data capture, data science which also involves a lot of clinical data analysis, and software.

Inception

The Periwinkle Technologies was co-founded by Veena Moktali and Koustubh Naik on 7th August 2013. As per Veena who is the Operational Head of the company, her team wanted to build a platform for healthcare for facilitating the availability of clinical information from remote sites to expert centers. They interacted with a large number of medical professionals from different specialties to understand the need. During this phase of market research, they met with the preventive oncology team from Tata Memorial Center and learned that screening for cervical cancer is a big challenge in countries like India.

             Veena Moktali

“While developing this concept, we understood that there is a great potential for a hardware device as well as for a software platform and analytical algorithms that work with the device. We received guidance from NCL Innovation Park (Venture Center) team at Pune and financial help in the form of grants from the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) to turn this concept into a product,” explains Veena.

The company has so far received two grants from the BIRAC and two grants from private financial organizations through their corporate social responsibility (CSR) program. Periwinkle has also been selected for a grant from Tata Trusts through Social Alpha in collaboration with PATH.

Think affordable

The reason for choosing cervical health testing as an area of interest, Veena says, is because cervical cancer is one of the top 3 killers in low resource countries. “It kills 300K women all around the world every year of which 26% are from India. Looking at the various products – old and new – that are in the market for solving this problem, we understood that none of them is a comprehensive solution.”

“Fortunately, we had access to collaborators and expert facilities that could help us gain the insights for developing a product that was a good fit to address the gap. With that said, now that we have a set of technologies as a base, we are also working on new product introductions for gynac as well as other application areas,” Veena says further.

                                                  Smart Scope CX

There have been quite a few challenges before the company. Being a startup, finding good talent at every level is a challenge at the moment. However, with growing brand awareness and higher spend on marketing campaigns and PR, it hopes the situation will gradually improve. “We do have great mentors and collaborators, and a world-class incubation facility such as the NCL Innovation Park which provides us a complete ecosystem including access to domain networks, startup training sessions, lab facilities like Prayashala, exposure to investors, and of course an elite peer group,” Veena reveals.

The company’s current R&D operations are being run with the support of an ongoing grant from Tata Trusts and PATH, besides the revenues to help in the operational expenses.

Veena seeks support from the government for tax concessions for R&D-based startups even if they have revenues and small amounts of profit as a large part of those revenues go towards managing cash flows in the early years of product stabilization and growth.

Way Forward

The product, Smart Scope CX has been recently launched for commercial sales. The company has already installed it in public health sites as well as private healthcare setups.

As per Veena, the goal is to provide a product that translates into an affordable test for the patient. For this, she says, the team always tries to think of product features that will reduce the costs for the test provider in terms of the operational requirements. “An example is making this product nurse-friendly so that expensive resources spend minimal time per test,” she explains.

The company aspires to provide this affordable test to nearly 400M Indian women and to around 1.5B women all over the world who are eligible for it. This way it is looking at a market of approximately US$ 15B. During the first year of sales, the revenue expectations are close to US$150K.

The immediate business plan of the company is to sell with the help of channel partners, and the team is in the process of establishing channel partners in major Indian cities this year.

Veena is confident that with a stable business model for sales in India this year, they would like to expand to other emerging markets over the next 5 years. “We also wish to introduce new products in this time period,” she says.

Our best wishes to the founders and their vision.