How CardioLink, a healthcare device around ECG, died prematurely

It was in early 2011 when a bunch of young engineers got together in Bangalore to work on an idea they had around a medical device following a conclusion that cardiac care is an un-addressed area in healthcare. Their research findings indicated that an average Indian doesn’t have proper access to heart care.

The problem and use case

An ECG is required whenever there is any heart problem and being a case of the heart, the issue is taken with a lot of seriousness. Hence, it becomes critical to get the diagnosis from an experienced doctor. Taking an ECG is not a problem and there are devices available in the range of INR 10k, but the challenge is what do you do after the ECG?

And this is where CardioLink comes in.

The idea was to build a device that could take an ECG and build a mobile ecosystem around it via which diagnosis can be done and sent back at the point of contact. The initial use case with which these engineers started was to take the device to rural India.


The journey to prototyping

The co-founding team had a few years of corporate experience between them but only in the technology domain. After a good six-month research period, the team got to work and started building the prototype. They sourced some of their boards and built some of the things in-house. The part of the circuit that took the ECG was the most critical.

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Working on it for a year, they came up with a prototype which could be hand held and was about the size of a tablet. They could build this for about INR 25k and if mass manufactured, could have brought down the price to INR 15k. With the prototype in hand, they were now ready for the next stage.

Funding, certification and selling

“Building the prototype was the best part of our journey,” says Nikhil, one of the co- founders, who now works as a freelance developer. Once they had the first model, the idea was to pitch for funding, get the certification and then start selling. They pitched to a couple of investors. “Traction” is what they heard. “Sell 10 of these and we’ll fund you,” was the refrain. They weren’t certified to sell in India yet because the certification takes a lot of capital but like many things in India, rules can be bent. If a customer wants to buy something you have, you can sell it. Going by this rule, they did manage to sell a few devices as smartphone penetration was picking up and doctors liked the fact that they could get the ECG on their phone.

They stopped selling more because they’d end up in a soup if the certification issue came up. “We were relying very heavily on the round of funding,” says Nikhil. In a hard sector, this team was left to fend for themselves. They also got a lead to GE where CardioLink received a lot of interest but after a few big meetings, things fizzled out. “It takes a lot of persistence to get a deal from a corporate. Plus, you’re also fighting with a viewpoint that nothing stops them from implementing your idea themselves,” says Nikhil. They tried for a couple of months but faced a dead end again.

The internal turmoil

While there were external forces, team issues were also there. In an area of uncertainty, a young team is bound to feel paranoid about their position. One of them wanted to protect their IP, one didn’t want to sell to corporates, one wanted to make money quickly — all these things were going on internally but this is pretty normal for a startup. A good set of mentors and some investment may have helped them sail through but for CardioLink, this was not to be.

Lessons to learn

This is not a one off story. Such incidents happen every day in the startup world. Some key pointers from the CardioLink incident:

-Many solutions are made with the intention of creating impact but the model eventually shifts towards a market where there are paying customers. This is not to discourage anyone but only a pointer that needs to be kept in mind while designing a solution.

-Investments play a crucial role in an area like healthcare devices. Making networks and being present at the right places from day one is very important.

-The mindset of ‘selling’ should not be neglected. Even if you’re a developer or an operations guy, ‘sales’ is what it’ll come down to to survive.

The prototype and dream of making this product work still lie in the shelves of these men. Do let us know (comment or drop in a mail to jubin@yourstory.com) if you’d like to get in touch with them. And also, drop us a note if you have a similar story to share.

About the author

Jubin is an old timer at YourStory. Deeply entrenched in the Indian startup ecosystem, he has written about and analysed more than 1000 startups. He operates from the mountains in Dharamshala where he plays with technology, farming and eco-construction. He can be reached on Twitter @jub_in and on mail at jubin@yourstory.com

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