A recent paper on cancer mortality in India showed that every year India lost about four lakh individuals to cancer, 'the emperor of all maladies'. In ten years’ time, it is believed that cancer-related deaths are going to cause seven lakh deaths, thanks largely to our unhealthy lifestyles that have come about because of rising economic benefits. There is a serious need for cancer detection at the early stages, and it is takes crucial research from the healthcare industry to save lives in the country. There are very few healthcare startups that focus on this early detection technology, and those Indian hospitals –that are working with foreign companies to produce cancer detection kits do so at a very expensive rate. So, this form of healthcare is available only to the wealthy and not to all.
Looking at this dire need to find affordable solutions to the deadly disease, Aman Sharma set up ExoCan Healthcare Technologies last year. A PhD from the National Centre for Cell Sciences, he had worked for six years in research before figuring out the nature of exosomes—vesticles in cells that transport proteins—which could be used to detect cancer without any physical intervention. Exosomes are secreted by every body cell and they are the funnel of very life itself. In simple English, exosomes can detect cancer when studied in lab conditions.
When Aman was doing his PhD in 2010 at University of Pune, he realised that cost for cancer treatments in India had to go down. He then spent his time developing a small diagnosis kit that could be used across the country. His Eureka! moment happened in 2014 when he realised that he could separate the cancer cells through exosomes in his lab and this kit could be sold to patients for as little as Rs 5,000. He quickly set up his company in 2015 after receiving a grant of Rs 49 lakh from the Department of Biotechnology. His competition includes some of the largest research companies like ThermoFisher and Exosome Diagnostics. Globally, these kits cost anything more than Rs 30,000 per person and goes up to Rs 1 lakh or more.
The company developed unique onco-technology platforms to deliver exosomes-based products and services, with applications for imaging and chemotherapy. The detection kit uses patient-derived bio-fluids like saliva, urine and blood to isolate cancer. The technology has several benefits over existing oncology procedures and a patient does not need a biopsy to determine cancer aggressiveness and metastatic propensity. “Our technologies do not require sophisticated instrumentation, highly trained medical professional. It is non-subjective and can be implemented under remote settings for cancer screening and diagnosis purposes,” says Aman. He adds that his technologies can provide a total molecular snapshot of growing cancer in the body without performing expensive scanning procedures. Aman says that his company’s technology is affordable and provides pain-free solutions to clinically manage cancers.
A single blood test is enough to detect cancer from the kit in the hospital. There is no need of chemotherapy nor incessant hospital visits, as the cancer is detected early.
The business model
Aman has spent Rs 38 lakh on the new lab for the company. He is now piloting his kits by partnering with diagnostic labs and King Edward Memorial Cancer Hospital in Mumbai. “It is too early to get testimonials because we are still testing the product. But this year we will expand by partnering with healthcare ecosystem,” he adds.
“Healthcare technology and research based products need customers and it must reach patients, it is a long-term game and there are not many in India,” says Sarath Naru, Managing Partner of Venture East.
If Aman Sharma can scale up his product by working with a few hospitals as his anchor clients, then ExoCan will be a valuable startup in the Indian business ecosystem simply because it would have saved many lives by reducing the costs to discover the early stages of cancer.