5 Questions with Sooraj Ratnakumar

10 minutes with Swagene, an India biotech start up on precision & personalised medicine

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Following the success of the Biotech Innovation Track at BioPharma Asia 2017 (now rebranded to Phar-East), we are delighted to introduce the same pitching format to the 15th BioPharma India 2017 in Mumbai this 19-20 September, to allow early stage, innovative Indian biotech companies to introduce their company profile and upcoming pipelines to interested investors and potential partners. One of the early confirmed companies is Swagene, a super specialty molecular diagnostic laboratory focused on precision medicine and personalised medicine. Founded by a highly experienced scientist, and a well known physician, Swagene develop affordable affordable molecular diagnostics with the best turnaround times globally to make advanced personalized medicine available, accessible and affordable.

Prior to Swagene’s presentation at BioPharma India conference , we got the chance to ask one of the founders, Dr Sooraj Ratnakumar some questions to give you a quick preview of what you can expect from their sharing this 19-20 September.

 

Q: What inspired the founding of Swagene?

Ratnakumar: After a decade of extensive academic research in the top institutes of the world from Cambridge to Seattle and Switzerland, I wanted to enter the realm of translational research impacting the lives of the vulnerable. As a molecular biologist, I’d explored the two biggest avenues career-wise. I enjoyed academic research and freedom in the best institutes in the world, but still felt there was some limitation. Dr Vani on the other hand had been a practicing physician for decades on a sabbatical and evaluating re-entering routine practice against the necessity of working long hours at all times of day and night. Timing was thus most opportune when we struck on this idea, and with the combined expertise of molecular biology and medicine there was no looking back. It happened to be the perfect mix and now we’re both in the zone doing stuff we’re totally passionate about.

 

Q: How is Swagene going to disrupt the pharma industry in India?

Ratnakumar: There is absolutely no treatment modality in healthcare where 100% of the patients respond uniformly. This is the premise of Personalized medicine, a premise that is well-accepted by almost every medical professional. In other words, for the same condition, different patients respond vastly differently ranging from cure without side-effects to emergency complications.

Genetic advances in science have now shown us that a majority of this diversity can be explained by miniscule genetic variations among us all. Precision or Personalized medicine is the approach that puts this into practice, whereby people are tested for specific genetic variations and stratified into response types in terms of both efficacy and risk of treatments. The appropriate therapy for that patient is then decided using this information along with other clinical factors. Personalized medicine is thus the culmination of evidence-based medicine.

In oncology, several drugs, surgical and chemotherapeutic modalities are effective and indicated only in the presence or absence of certain mutations. It is therefore routine practice for oncologists to initiate therapy only after testing for genetic mutations. Moreover, molecular diagnosis by PCR offers the highest sensitivity and accuracy at the shortest turnaround time among all molecular technologies, that these may now be availed at the earliest stage of cancer leading to increasing ‘cure’ rates for what were once thought to be incurable diseases.

Let me take fertility treatment for men as another example. Usually below 50% of men respond favourably to hormone therapy. We now know that only the men with genetic variants respond, improving the sperm parameters to get their wife pregnant.

 

Q: What type of company/investors would you like to meet at BioPharma India this year?

Ratnakumar: Our future plan is to make molecular diagnostics rapid, easy and affordable. Even for affordable cancer therapies, genetic tests are able to guide treatment regimens in terms of duration and drugs. But the majority of cancer patients in India lack access to these important diagnostic tools for various reasons. We will make molecular diagnostics available, accessible and affordable for everyone.

In this journey we welcome partners of various kinds including investors providing funding, strategic partners for codevelopment or distribution, lab partners for distribution, instrumentation partners for expertise etc. The world of genetics encompasses all life forms and with enormous scope, and therein lies our potential, collaborations and partnerships for the future.

The acceleration of Precision medicine implementation through educational activities and boosting research in the field through both funding and multidisciplinary collaboration will be in everyone’s interest. Hence, at Swagene, we welcome and encourage such participation by any member of the healthcare ecosystem and actively seek collaborations in realizing our shared vision for improving patient outcomes.

 

Q: Please give us a quick preview of what you will share with us at the conference

Ratnakumar: We will share our journey so far of developing advanced molecular diagnostics in our lab and offer them in India. Advanced technologies take several years to reach India, and even now samples are shipped to Europe, USA and China for these tests adding to both costs as well as turnaround time. We will have completely validated advanced tests such as liquid biopsy to diagnose cancer in blood in our lab thereby reducing both cost and turnaround time, while contributing to the ‘make in India’ program.

We will also share our future outlook demonstrating the role genetics will play in the future in everyone’s health and lifestyle. We have only begun on this journey and will explain our plans for transforming the field by developing rapid, easy, affordable solutions for medical and wellness genetics.

 

Any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs looking to start a biotech company in India?

Ratnakumar: Establishing expertise is priority in hard tech: We found early on that the top specialists in every medical specialty absolutely valued the expertise we provided. So we kept building more upon our knowledge in serving our customer and non-customer doctors diligently in queries irrespective of whether we offer those tests. Even today, we heartily partake in all molecular medicine discussions leading to frequent invitations to speak and present at national conferences.

External challenges can force a downturn, overcome them: While in December of 2015 we faced massive floods in Chennai thus losing quite valuable inventory because of lack of electricity for several days, 2016 is ending with its own set of challenges including the demonetization and a severe cyclonic storm. We have learned by now to stand firmly rooted during these times and especially use these brief imposed hiatus as opportunities to introspect and improve.

India is a place with more commerce than science, more affordability than quality, and therein lies a huge gap. We are bridging these differences by combining affordable innovations with quality science in molecular diagnostics. I think there’s a lot more potential in other areas too to adopt this strategy, without losing on quality. Lastly, focus on your customers and absolutely no one else.

 

Swagene is one of the 15 confirmed early stage biotech companies speaking at BioPharma India 2017 in Mumbai this 19-20 September. Want to find out more? Give me a call at +65 6322 2339, write to me at emily.chong@terrapinn.com or visit our website for more information.

 

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