His company – Lifecell – has just bought over the stake held by its investor, Helion Ventures, and is looking at maintaining its position as the largest stem cell network in the country. It is launching an on-demand model for sharing cord blood cells.
Mayur Abhaya is simple man, he cabs it down on a ride share from Marathalli, a software making district in Bengaluru, into Indiranagar, where his office is situated. He can easily pass off as a white collar worker – wearing neatly tucked formals, sporting a pair of modern rectangular spectacles and showing off brown beads wrapped around his wrists.
One may also think, by looking at his attire, that this is a software employee who follows a religion or is spiritual. Upon striking up a conversation with him, however, he will tell you that he is neither religious nor has a software engineering background. He tells us that he wears these beads because his children had bought them and then left them lying in the house. So, he had to wear them, and thought it was a cool thing to be sporting.
By the way, Mayur Abhaya owns India’s largest stem cell banking solutions network, Lifecell, a company that has a 60 percent market share in India and has 1500 people working in it.
According to the World Health Organisation, there are 25 million babies born each year, in India, and less than even 0.10 percent of the stem cells get stored. No wonder it has taken Mayur’s company thirteen years to hit Rs 125 crore in revenues, with a total of Rs 25 crore invested so far. Back in 2008, the company was storing close to 4,000 stem cells a year.
“The opportunity is large. But back then, hospitals were not convinced,” says Mayur, CEO of Bengaluru-based Lifecell. Every parent in India is sometimes confused about stem cells. As Mayur puts it, “A stem cell transplant is like rebooting software with updates.”
But, what is a stem cell?
According to the US Department of Health, stem cells are cells that are capable of renewing themselves through cell division. These cells can repair and rebuild damaged tissue. The uses of stem cells are still being researched, but it is expected that, at some point of time in the future, people can rebuild their damaged organs and tissues with stem cells. By pushing the frontiers of science, these stem cells, collected from cord blood, will one day treat genetic disorders and coordinate the functions of the body.
Back in Chennai, the cryolabs of Lifecell store the cord blood of almost two lakh babies, including that of Aishwarya Rai’s daughter and the children of other celebrities. There are three sitting Chief Ministers who have stored their babies’ cord blood with Lifecell. Stem cell storage was once considered to be affordable only for the rich, given that the cost could go up to Rs 1 lakh or more. But in a decade, the price has halved, and the more we save our stem cells, the further prices will continue to drop.
The company recently bought back the Rs 35 crore equity infusion made by Helion Ventures in 2013. “We bought them back and gave them a good exit,” says Mayur. He adds that they raised debt, through other family ventures, to pay back Helion. “We have scaled up to focus on our growth plans,” he says.
There are more than one lakh stem cells stored in private banks in the country per year, and there are close to 15 stem cell companies offering services to consumers. Cryoviva, Cordlife India, Million Cells, and Cryovault being some of the more well-known ones. The reason all these companies are betting on India is that stem cells are the future of science, and India is set to have the highest number of babies being born for the next 40 years. The median age in India is also 27 currently, and it will not be getting any higher before 2030. According to the Cord Blood Registry, the US alone has close to a million cord blood tissue samples stored. Viacord and Cryo-Cell are the leading companies in that region.
Mayur wants to increase the number of stem cells stored in the country because he believes that is the only way prices can drop. There are 5,000 hospitals, 150 centres, and 10,000 doctors who work with Lifecell to promote the storage of cord blood. However, he has grand plans to aid his company’s growth towards Rs 200 crore. “Today, only 2 percent of the total stem cells are being used in India, and public stem cell banks have only 5,000 units left,” says Mayur. He adds that stem cells are needed in several operations and that it is the need of the hour to proliferate the use of existing stem cells.
He has created an on-demand model for stem cells, where parents can let the company know if their babies’ cord blood cells can be used for other needy patients. By letting their stem cells be used by others, the parents and their children get access to cord blood cells – of the entire cord blood cell bank – when they are in need. Today, cord blood cells can treat more than 70 diseases, including leukemia and lymphoma. The cord blood can be used for treating siblings too. “The incentive is the karma points, but we are also going to refund the entire amount paid for having their baby’s stem cell stored. But the added benefit is that they get to access the bank when their child is in need of treatment,” says Mayur.
This model works best because only 20 percent of a person’s stored cord-blood cells can be used for treatment, with the person needing the remaining 80 percent of the treatment requirement from donor cells.
If you look at Singapore, the government funds the parents $6,000 (Singapore Dollars) for storing stem cells. The lack of subsidies in India makes this on-demand model, to be launched by Mayur, a reasonable dive into increasing the storage of stem cells in the country.
Lifecell, although operationally profitable (which means it has enough cash to run its business), is yet to make net profits. But Mayur believes that, going forward, it will make net profits, and that this year, the number of stem cells brought into the labs will be higher by at least 30 percent.
Himani Aggarwal, a media professional, told YourStory that when she first conceived, the first thing that came to her mind was to give her child a healthy life. “We were going through various things that would be beneficial for our child in the future, when we heard of preserving stem cells, which will be helpful for our child if ever there is a health problem,” she says. While Himani lives in a metro city, there are several small town women who are taking this seriously too.
Go into the towns of Erode, Salem, and Tirupur – all industrial centres of Tamil Nadu – and you will find women who are keen to store stem cells. But Mayur says the decision is also taken by men. “Men in smaller towns and cities are a target for us because they too want their baby’s cord blood cells to be stored,” he says.
Vinoth Kumar, a businessman from Tirupur, says that he stored cord blood because he read in a Tamil magazine that this could treat diseases when children get older. “There was no greater gift than this to my child,” says Vinoth.
The market for cord blood is large globally. Grandview Research says it will be a $12 billion market by 2022. The report adds that the US alone has over 760,000 patients suffering from Hodgkin’s or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which can be treated with stem cells. But there is a need for a greater increase in stem cell research and the treatment of commerce.
While companies like Lifecell are pushing this forward, the fight against disease is endless. Mayur Abhaya is one of the pioneers in this field, and he is carrying the legacy of his father forward. Lifecell was founded by Abhaya senior in 2004, after coming out of family-run advanced pharma ingredient manufacturer, Shahsun Chemicals. Lifecell has a technology partnership with Cryo-Cell International, to set up storage facility. Mayur’s journey had indeed just begun, and the beads he wears are a testimony to staying young; hopefully, stem cells can make mankind feel younger by aiding in curing diseases.