This social entrepreneur aims to to offer a healthy and affordable breast prosthesis for breast cancer patients
For most breast cancer survivors, while the disease and the treatment itself is painful, losing their breast (s) through mastectomy is even more traumatic. Mastectomy, a surgery where all the breast tissue is removed to treat and prevent further cancer, is one of most common treatment options for breast cancer. What follows is a bout of body image issues and loss of confidence.
In a hospital in Bengaluru, Pawan Mehrotra came across a few women waiting in line with their sarees draped towards different sides. On speaking with an elderly couple, he learnt that they visited the hospital for a follow up after a unilateral mastectomy that the woman had gone through.
“The husband sorrowfully explained how his wife was far more disturbed by the permanent void left by the whole surgical and treatment process. Every morning she took a bath, she was stressed and reminded of the ordeal she underwent,” Pawan recalls.
This was some time after Pawan, who holds a PhD in Cancer Sciences, had moved to India in 2012 to research therapeutic interventions for breast cancer patients at the Centre for Chemical Biology and Therapeutics at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru. This was part of a joint initiative between the University of Cambridge in the UK and the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India.
His work took him to hospitals quite often where he noticed the problems women who had gone through mastectomy and their families face.
A case of the ‘obvious becoming oblivious’, Pawan felt a solution to cope with physical and emotional difficulty was pertinent.
A holistic and affordable kit
Pawan founded a for-profit social venture Aarna Biomedical Products, based in Noida. Its first product, The Poorti kit comprises light-weight premade external silicone gel breast prosthesis which is 33 percent lighter, two pocketed brassieres, two prosthesis covers, a prosthesis holder, along with an information usage manual. The prosthesis is available in 10 different sizes and two shapes.
Focussing on offline sales, the startup employs women to make the products available through a mobile fitting service called Sampoorti. Patients can visit nearby trial centres or request for doorstep service of the products. They can also purchase via WhatsApp.
With a starting price of Rs 4,500, the kit has been validated for use across 30 cities in 14 states of India. The social entrepreneur successfully filed a patent for the manufacturing process of these kits which takes place at his manufacturing unit in Noida.
Pawan says the current range of products are co-developed and designed with patients and kept improvising based on their experience and feedback after use.
Backed by Social Alpha, a Tata Trust initiative, his innovation secured the BIG grant from Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC).
The Poorti Kit
Taking the long road
Pawan notes while the market offers breast prostheses, existing options include imported breast prostheses from China, made of silicone of the same material used in manufacturing sex toys. The cheap and low-quality prosthesis is heavy and causes strain on the shoulder strap and women struggle wearing them in the long term.
On the other hand, prostheses from the US and European countries were expensive and did not include accessories like pocketed brassieres to ensure women do not face accidental slippage.
There are also cases where women make do by stuffing a handkerchief and even use polythene bags. As these materials are not waterproof, they tend to cause itchiness while sweating.
Pawan explains that when a woman loses a breast, something similar to the breast tissue is needed.
After quitting his job in Bengaluru, he decided to start up purely out of compassion and had no strategy in place. He began from ground zero by enrolling in IIT Delhi in order to develop a seamless manufacturing setup and process.
The journey has not been without its share of challenges. As a father to a daughter, his family members were apprehensive of him taking an entrepreneurial route from scratch after years of research work. Before securing external funds, his savings was fast depleting and he kept a bare minimum salary for himself.
Pawan says he was dedicated towards providing an affordable and healthy solution. From helping a 15-year-old burn victim who lost both her breasts to an 84-year-old breast cancer survivor who’s lived without a solution for almost two years, despite living in a metro city with her son living in the US, the joy of doing something worthwhile keeps him going.
"Catering to women across age groups from different socio-cultural backgrounds, the experience has been quite overwhelming. And I believe there is still more to do," he signs off.