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Starting up your idea – Face à Face with Kunal Kishore Dhawan, Founder of Navia Life Care

in Entrepreneurship/Face à Face/SciBiz by

‘Rome was not built in a day’ – as cliché as it sounds, it has stood the test of time even in this era of startups. Beyond the romance of building enterprises, one should take a reality check on challenges faced in building an idea from scratch and turning it into a reality. Somdatta Karak (SK) from CSG talks to Kunal Kishore Dhawan (KD), about his entrepreneurial experience while building ‘Navia Life Care’, a health tech company based in New Delhi, India. Navia Life Care builds customized mobile and software solutions for clinicians, medical providers and other players in healthcare ecosystem. Their goal is to provide easier and cheaper means of communicating, engaging and monitoring of patients.

Talking to us about his roller coaster journey from Navia’s inception to developing happy customers in market, Kunal opens up about the valuable lessons he learned while building his team, product, and skills that helped him sustain in the market.

SK: We would love to know about your journey so far – from having the first idea, to arranging funds, to developing your product and company into its current form.

KD: Healthcare is a traditionally fragmented space in India, with various stakeholders – medical practitioners, providers, pharmacists, pharma companies, insurance players and ultimately patients operating in silos. Getting them to work in tandem with each other, by exchanging information and interlinks, is any healthcare entrepreneur’s dream. I realized several critical issues plaguing the industry, ranging from the lack of essential quality health services, inaccessibility of healthcare institutions for differently abled, overall scarcity of medical professionals, to the quality of sub-standard medicines. My experience as an executive in the pharma industry made one issue particularly stand out – the patient’s adherence to drug regimens.

While we knew that technology can solve problems in this field, it was essential for us to first understand which problems we want to address, and for whom. Repeated interactions with different stakeholders prompted us, to develop a pill reminder system at Navia Life Care, that would function on a mobile device. Our first iteration of the app was based on a business-to-consumer model, i.e. by working directly with patients. The release of our app was well received, but could not open any avenues of monetization. That prompted us to further evaluate our company’s strategy.

We realized that it was imperative to consider drug adherence as a part of a holistic patient management process, so that our solution also adds value to the clinicians practice, and improves the relationship between patient and provider. Upon finalization of our product’s framework, we assembled an in-house team of developers, to improve work efficiency, reduce errors and turnaround time. Our second direct-to-consumer campaign consisted of roll-out and interaction with patients and providers, where they used our product for a certain period of time. It gave us useful information on the problems faced by both the sides, and compelled us to make the following changes:

  • Opt for a business-to-business (B2B) strategy, i.e., building the platform for healthcare institutions, ranging from individual practitioners, clinics, hospitals to health-focused social enterprises instead of working with patients directly.
  • Be flexible with the product we offer to the clients, instead of forcing one down their throat.
  • Understand first, needs of a client, and then put together a solution that best fits.
  • Be open to brand the product in name of the client, instead of pushing our brand to patients, which might give them incentive to pay for the product.

B2B strategy worked well in regards to generating a revenue and helped us get a small seed investment from Benori Ventures LLP – a private seed fund run by an industry veteran, Ashish Gupta – founder of Evalueserve, Gurgaon, India and co-founder of Ashoka University, Sonepat, India. We are now hoping to break even before the end of 2017.

The core Navia team (from left to right – Gaurav Gupta (Operations Strategy Lead), KD (CEO), Shourjo Banerjee (CTO)

SK: Tell us about the prominent challenges faced in an entrepreneurial journey. How did you work around yours?

KD: The biggest challenge was to identify the needs of customer and build our product around it, so that it gets adopted and paid for by consumers and customers. The only way, in my opinion, to achieve that was to keep the needs of customers in forefront of whatever we do. We have constantly gone back to the users to get their inputs on whatever we created. There is no point in making something, if there is no need for it. Another of our evident challenges was to identify and develop an in-house team who understands, appreciates this problem, and has the skillset to solve it.

Navia was bootstrapped from day 1 and we hired only freshers and trained them to fit the appropriate roles. Until Feb of 2017, we were not able to generate any revenue from our products. We re-designed our product and business strategy multiple times, so that users could see the real value of our product and we could monetize on it. This revenue generation has been very critical for our fundraising ability. Most investors look for a business model that works, i.e. has the ability to generate money, and not burn a hole in pocket of the company.

Meanwhile, there have been times when I felt like doing something else, although not necessarily giving up. I had decided to give myself a year to assess the business correctly, but based on advice given by several veterans, we decided to stretch it to year and a half. There were times during Jan and Feb of this year, where it seemed that we would not be able to pull our resources to last the entire time, but having a clear focus and time frame helped us tide over that period.

SK: How do you support your startup – in terms of funding, mentoring, etc.? Among the young entrepreneurs venturing into health technology in India, which ones do you recommend and why?

KD: I believe we are at a point in the Indian startup ecosystem, where a good support system exists for new entrepreneurs. Of course, it is not anywhere close to the “boom” of 2014-16, but in a way, that’s better. All business ideas are analyzed critically before they get funded. There is a continuous assessment going on from the entrepreneurs and stakeholders of products, which helps us improve the offering, and in better vetting of the business as a whole.

There are plenty of accelerators and incubators (some are associated with universities, which is good) that help the first-time innovators. But it is important to assess them for their merits, as there are always some bad apples. Some are just in business to make a quick buck from their struggling startups, and it is necessary to be wary of them. One has to also analyze the investor’s management team and success story as critically as they assess you as an entrepreneur – and remember – they need you more than you need them! The traditional VC’s are always good, but they come at a later stage. During initial stages, having a mentor from a similar field helps (and if they can fund you in a small way, all the better).

As for the list, I would suggest that every entrepreneur should do their research and identify a team that suits them. It helps not only to increase focus, but also improve one’s network, which is critical at all stages.

SK: According to you, what are some of the most important qualities an entrepreneur should have? Who would you recommend taking this path?

KD: I think an entrepreneur needs to embrace the “humanity” in them – the same qualities that make us human are amplified in entrepreneurship. Patience, diligence, grit, ability to repeatedly take a “no”, adaptability, ability to handle failures, and not being resistant to change, are just some of them. There are times when you might feel that this is the end, but you just need to dig in and get out of the rut. Customers, investors, stakeholders, even team members are often critical of the company and its products, so it is essential to listen, and imbibe what you think is beneficial for betterment of the business.

I think everyone should become an entrepreneur, and if not that at least an intrapreneur. Bring about a change in smallest of the ways, wherever you work or live – that itself is worthwhile. You don’t need to build a billion-dollar business, even the smallest gestures sometimes create a significant impact.

SK: What have been your most valuable learnings so far from entrepreneurship?

KD: This journey has been nothing, if not educational for me. From being a member of a 10,000+ employee organization, to taking the business idea to a 10-member group, it has been full of learning, both academic and intangible ones. Academics or educational apprenticeships have included developments in regulatory landscapes, company laws, human resource requirements, hospital systems, coding technologies/languages, and much more. Although, the intangibles have been more rewarding – such as handling teams and employees, ability to take rejections, adaptability, etc. Entrepreneurship is a long-term game, and one must be ready to slug it out for the long haul. Patience has been key, and not hesitating to seek feedback or help from people more experienced and connected to you, has helped. Lastly, don’t underestimate your network – collaborations, customers, even critics come from a network, and one should always be willing to expand that.

SK: How does the journey look for you in coming years? What are your next priorities? Where do you see yourself and your product in next five years?

KD: I sincerely hope that the coming years are rewarding. A saying goes “Entrepreneurship is the willingness to live for a few years like most people won’t, to enable yourself to live for rest of your life like most people can’t, and I hope it comes true for me. I will continue to build the company, add customers, improvise on products and services while focusing on innovation and differentiation. My aim is to create ten things during my lifetime – now whether it’s ten products or ten companies or a combination of the two remains to be seen. Navia Life Care is a first of these, and I hope in the next five years, I would be able to add to it.

 

Author: Somdatta Karak, PhD writes on science, business/ entrepreneurship and social challenges of education and global health.

Editorial team: Paurvi Shinde, PhD edited the article. Sushama Sivakumar, PhD and Akshaya Hodigere proofread the article.

Paurvi Shinde is a Post Doc Fellow at Bloodworks Northwest in Seattle, where she’s studying the mechanism of how alloantibodies are formed against the non-ABO blood group antigens. Apart from doing the actual science, she loves editing scientific articles, to help convey message behind it in a clear and concise form.

Sushama Sivakumar is currently postdoctoral scholar at UT Southwestern Medical Center, Texas, USA. She works in the lab of Hongtao Yu where she studies mechanisms that regulate proper chromosome segregation during mitosis.

Illustration: The cover picture is made by Ipsa Jain (follow her work as IpsaWonders at Facebook and Instagram) with assistance from Noun Project under CC license. The inset images are made by Somdatta Karak.

 

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Career Path from academic research to supporting social enterprises – Face a Face with Dr. Arun Venkatesan, Villgro

in Entrepreneurship/Face à Face/SciBiz by

Here is our second article in line as part of our two article series on Villgro, a social enterprise incubator. The article is based on a discussion between Dr. Reetu Mehta, Vignesh Narayan, Club SciWri (CSW) and Dr. Arun Venkatesan (AV), Chief Technology Officer, Villgro. We discuss here Dr. Arun Venkatesan’s successful and trendsetting journey from being an academic researcher to working in Villgro.

CSW: What is your story- how did you arrive at Villgro?

AV: My training has been in Chemical engineering. I was an undergraduate at RAC, Trichy that is now NIT, Trichy. I completed my masters & PhD at the University of Akron and a post doctorate at Case Western University in fuel cells & materials. While working at Mitsubishi housed in UC Santa Barbara, CA, I was engaged in developing a fuel-cell material. Then I worked with a small company on an electrochemical oxygen generator, reverse of the fuel cell and later contributed in a startup working on device development. I moved back to Chennai looking for projects and started working as head of R&D at Phoenix Medical Systems. One of the projects that came out during that period was Brilliance, a low-cost phototherapy product – arguably the first openly priced product at 400$ for India, Nepal, Pakistan and 500$ worldwide. Other projects Phoenix has been involved with are, one from IIT Delhi, a Wellcome Trust funded project called SmartCane – an ultrasound based navigation device for the visually impaired costing Rs 3000. Another one was a standup wheelchair called R2D2 that was funded by Wellcome Trust at IIT Madras, designed by Prof. Sujatha Srinivasan’s group. I consulted quite a bit afterwards and one of my consulting clients was Villgro.

As you can see, I already had a bent of mind for product development in the social space. Eventually whatever worked out was where my heart was – they all had a social angle. So when the Villgro role came it was a natural fit.

CSW: What goes into making a social entrepreneur?

AV:. Social enterprise is a difficult field. We, at Villgro, really empathize with the entrepreneurs because they have chosen to solve a difficult problem and dedicate a huge chunk of their lives to it. Openness to ideas, and commitment is what we look for at Villgro. The social entrepreneur is the one who owns the problem no matter what and wants to solve it. It takes time, a good amount of their life – about 5 to 7 years before any sizable revenue is generated.

CSW: What are the skills a life science PhD requires to work at places like Villgro or an investment firm?

AV: Flexibility or versatility – You can be a subject expert but you should be able to very quickly probe into and assess knowledge regarding the field in question. Identifying the problem and relating it to the business side of things is very important. Multifaceted assessment of an idea is also very important.

2. Openness – You cannot be very dogmatic about anything.

3. Networking and having soft skills – Regarding soft skills I think it is very important understanding how to practically apply the knowledge you have.

I believe PhD is only a proof that the person is capable of defining, analyzing and solving a problem. Problems will almost always be outside your core training. You will have to use the general skills that you have learned to get there. Scientific and technology development principles still apply. But an intuitive jump (to understand the problem) is required.

CSW: One of the things we notice in India is your educational qualifications are not given their due credit when you enter the job market, especially for PhDs. What is your opinion on that?

AV: The entire industry working space is moving towards a more efficient lean model. There are research institutes where the degree and sector expertise are valued. In the entrepreneurial sector, especially in social entrepreneurship, knowledge is definitely valued but you have to be very productive and very efficient. The approach we take is that you have to be relevant to your customer, which in this case is the entrepreneur. So anyone who can share knowledge in a way that is relevant and creates an impact is always respected, especially in India where a lot of things are relationship driven. I find that it is not the degree but the deployable knowledge that is valued. If you can translate your knowledge to something that is relevant to the customer, then your knowledge is valuable. There are western systems where there are very set roles – if the role is not effective anymore then you may also lose value. However, in the Indian context, I wouldn’t say that your degree is not valued. If you value your degree then you value the knowledge your degree has given you. There has to be balance of respect and relevance.

CSW: What are the career options that a life science specialist can explore at investment firms or organizations like Villgro?

AV: If you are flexible enough, technical mentors are always needed. Sector knowledge is respected because that leads to quick solutions. We call them senior advisors but you can call them technical advisors. These are very knowledge driven roles.

CSW: What sort of options exist for those who are fresh out of their PhDs?

AV: There are a lot of analyses that investors rely on, for instance, landscape analyses. In those sectors they can add value. But one should remember that the value of the person and their degree would be subsequently determined by the impact they generate.

About the authors: The article is based on an interview conducted by Dr. Reetu Mehta and Vignesh Narayan, and transcribed by Dr. Somdatta Karak.

Illustration: The inset image was made by Dr. Somdatta Karak. The cover picture is from Pixabay.

About the editors: Dr. Shayu Deshpande edited and Dr. Roopsha Sengupta streamlined the article. Dr. Manoja Eswara proofread the article.

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

 

 

Villgro – Supporting social entrepreneurs stand on their feet

in Entrepreneurship/Face à Face/SciBiz by

Gone are the days when social work was perceived by many, as mindless charity. Today many bright minds work on ideas and innovations in various fields to make lives of the marginalized better – by attempting to make quality education and healthcare accessible to all, by providing sustainable livelihoods, to name a few. We are talking about those entrepreneurs who cater to the poorest of poor. These out of the box thinkers, in helping one of the most critical customer segments are aided in their journeys by support systems such as Villgro.

We have a two article series based on discussion between Dr. Reetu Mehta and Vignesh Narayan from Club SciWri (CSW) and Dr. Arun Venkatesan (AV), Chief Technlogy Officer, Villgro, Chennai. They discussed the role of incubators and venture capitalists committed to social development in India, with a special focus on Villgro’s medtech and healthcare programs. This first in the series article briefs our readers on the functioning of Villgro and the niche that it caters to.

CSW: Please brief our readers about Villgro- who does it work with and how does it work?

AV: Villgro is a 16 years old non-profit social enterprise incubator (not an accelerator) which works like a venture capital firm. One of its core missions is to work towards poverty elimination by creating for-profit enterprises with ideas that could help the poor, mostly in rural India. We look for sustainable impact in areas where even the poorest will be willing to pay – three such areas are agriculture, education and health. The organization not only invests in but also provides mentoring support to these enterprises and sits on their board to hold the companies accountable.

CSW: How does Villgro take care of its expenses?

AV: Operational expenses are largely covered by donations from foundations that believe in our abilities and cause. We are also being entrepreneurial ourselves by performing equity investments and are slowly contributing to Villgro’s sustainability.

CSW: What is the difference between Villgro and a venture capitalist?

AV: We give grants. Venture capitalists take primary interest in equity. While Villgro also takes equity in some cases, we follow a very mentor-intensive model. A lot of times enterprises approach us not only for the seed funding but also because of our high touch mentoring model. Our portfolio managers check on enterprises every week if not more often, have monthly reviews and assign time to guide each enterprise by providing a mentor and a senior technical advisor. Villgro does virtual business incubation- when the science and technology is already developed; we help the enterprise get to a product version, post-validation of that proof of concept. The product is examined from the point of the problem(s) it addresses, the solution it is providing and the strength of the problem-solution fit, its market, scope, consumer, price, etc. ‘Fail early and fail often’ is what people say in entrepreneurship. We push the enterprises at least at the thought level to figure out which concepts are failing and move on to the next.

CSW: Tell us more about the process of selecting the enterprises that Villgro wants to incubate. Who checks with the numbers that the entrepreneurs come up with and how is it done?

AV: When there is an application made to us we have an internal process. We have an internal investment committee and an external investment committee comprising some of our board members, to eliminate all kinds of biases in the decision making process. When an entrepreneur first comes to us, we do a preliminary screen to assess if some of the following check boxes are crossed. The checkboxes include:

  • The contribution made by the organization must have a direct social impact primarily to the rural Indian poor who are at the base of the pyramid. For instance, Reliance Jio creates thousands of jobs, which indirectly impacts the rural society. However an enterprise providing content development on science education in tier 2 cities or developing very low cost machines for small, marginalized farmers who have 1 acre of land is more likely to cause direct social impact.
  • Sustainability and scalability – Sometimes they are separate and sometimes they are inter-linked.
  • Technology innovation –We mostly hear from startups developing products for agriculture or medtech due to Villgro’s product bias. Rarely have we supported startups providing services alone. We are funded by Lemelson Foundation to fund inventions that directly impact society.

We classify graduation or exit as “when the company is able to raise subsequent rounds of funding on their own and stand on their own feet”.

Once all the three criteria are satisfied, we generally get a feedback from the sector leads, portfolio managers, and the investment committee. The sector leads take the decision if we should engage in detailed diligence for ensuring a bias free decision. The process of due diligence takes about 4 to 6 weeks and is a very iterative process. We talk to subject experts such as clinicians working in medical technology, practicing teachers, content developers, agricultural entrepreneurs, ecosystem stakeholders, distributors, businessmen and scientists from research institutes to get the facts and numbers verified. We do detailed analyses so that it validates as well as exposes gaps in the entrepreneurs’ armor. The due diligence is done iteratively till a solid case is built. If it cannot be built it gets rejected. Iteration happens every week or every two weeks. When a critical amount of evaluation is done for a case, it is pre-tested in an internal committee (IC) meeting, which is held every week. In this meeting, we discuss the new things that we have learned about the enterprise and decide if we should dig deeper into issues such as – size of the problem, potential customers, market size, cost of the product, regulations around the product and so on.

We also identify where subsequent funding will be available from and how it can be leveraged. We build a solid relationship with the entrepreneur especially via portfolio managers. A lot of feedback is also given during the diligence itself, which benefits the entrepreneur.

CSW: Why do you restrict the product to only the rural setup?

AV: That is where the toughest problem lies. If that is sorted, it can thrive in a private market very easily.

Healthcare related products catering to rural market that we look at, must:

  • Improve the quality of healthcare
  • Increase access to healthcare
  • Reduce cost of quality healthcare

There is an enormous need for these in the rural context. The three themes, which we have in healthcare, are Maternal and Newborn Child Health (MNCH), Communicable diseases and Non-communicable diseases (either therapeutic or diagnostic solutions). This is also in alignment with the millennium goals or now called sustainable development goals.

Some ideas may not satisfy all of our requirements of direct impact or sustainability or innovation, but we listen. We want to make sure that no novel model is missed out.

CSW: How long is the incubation period?

AV: Since this is not a physical incubation there is no ‘get out’ date. It is company and sector dependent. Life sciences/ medtech enterprises have long incubation periods of around 3 to 5 years. Ideally 2 years is sufficient but this is difficult in the medtech sector.

CSW: How do entrepreneurs support themselves during this mentorship period?

AV: A seed capital of 20-60 lakhs is given to them. Then we prepare them to raise other funds. A lot of funding in life sciences is also available from DBT, BIRAC and DST. Typically, if an enterprise passes through the detailed diligence in Villgro they are well considered elsewhere too.

CSW: What do enterprises gain from Villgro and how do they fare once they exit Villgro?

AV: Villgro takes on very early enterprises. Today’s average profile is a tech savvy person with a technology or engineering background who has a technology solution and is trying to launch a product. Some of them are pre-proof of concept. So business-wise, a lot of learning is required. We identify the gaps and when they exit Villgro they usually have a product, which may still be pre-revenue. Although Villgro has been around for 16 years, how enterprises fare post Villgro is still experimental.

One of the enterprises mentored by Villgro, Biosense, started off with two physicians who wanted to make a difference in tackling anemia in women. They developed a low cost solution providing other parallel diagnostic tests. They have glucometers and a noninvasive anemia-screening device. What is amazing here is that for sustainability a lot of companies go through public-private pivot. All get started with the government but they move to private sector for sustainability where margins are better. In public sector the numbers are large but the turnaround times are huge. Government is a tough customer but it is a great customer. Long-term sustainability can be achieved if you can crack the market. So, a lot of the companies pivot very easily towards private sector for immediate returns. We have a mandate for them saying that they cannot completely move towards private. Biosense has kept its primary focus on penetrating government channels to deploy devices at appropriate levels and quality and they have been in business for quite some time.

We realized there is a funding gap between enterprises coming out of Villgro and a mainstream investor picking them up, so Villgro principals launched a for-profit SEBI registered fund for social impact called Menterra. Menterra also focuses on sustainability, scalability and, tech based innovations. The fund has a size of 50 crores and provides a funding between 2 to 4 crores. Menterra was launched exclusively to bridge this funding gap.

CSW: So does Villgro now have two verticals; one for not-for-profit social enterprises, and the other for profit?

AV: Actually these two are separate organizations launched by the same core group of people that share a common mission and beliefs. Both are partner organizations and each believes in the others’ due diligence and mandates.

CSW: Can somebody who has been incubated at Villgro look forward for a funding from Menterra?

AV: It is not taken for granted. Both have the mandates of serving rural India but each has its own investment committee (IC). Some of the members might be shared on both ICs, but each organization has an independent voting process to avoid any conflicts of interest.

CSW: Apart from Villgro what are the other incubators in India, which provide such mentorship?

AV: Each one is unique in their approach, mandate and the sectors that they focus on.

For life sciences – there is CIIE, Ahmedabad that is sort of our competitor (But well, we work with social enterprises, it is not called competition, however geographical locations do matter). BIRAC has Bionest program. There are 20 Bionest incubators. Different incubators focus on different kinds of enterprises. Some focus on more mature enterprises whereas others focus on nonprofits, like Aavishkar. There is Venture Centre – an off shoot of NCL in Pune with a lot of focus on polymer chemistry, C-CAMP in Bangalore, KIT in Bhubaneshwar, FITT at IITD, IKP (ICICI Knowledge Park) at Hyderabad, to name a few.

Stay tuned for part-2 in this series that will discuss the career trajectory of Dr. Arun Venkateshan from academic research to working with a social enterprise incubator.

About the authors: The interview was conducted by Dr. Reetu Mehta and Vignesh Narayan, and was transcribed by Dr. Somdatta Karak.

About the editors: Dr. Shayu Deshpande edited and Dr. Roopsha Sengupta streamlined the article. Dr. Manoja Eswara proofread the article.

Illustrations: The cover image was made by Ipsa Jain (follow her work at Ipsawonders on Facebook and Instagram). The inset image was made by Dr. Somdatta Karak.

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

 

 

Continuus Pharmaceuticals: Changing the rules of drug manufacturing

in Entrepreneurship/Face à Face by

Editor’s note: The innovative research and technologies bid adios to many diseases that posed a threat to us. However, with the boost in the population, one major challenge that the pharmaceutical industry confronts is to keep the balance between demand and supply. In the global market, it is no longer just about getting the right cure; it is about searching the fastest, economic, eco-friendly and sustainable alternatives. This face-to-face interview with Bayan Takizawa will throw light on ‘continuous flow model’ of manufacturing which permits the bio-pharma companies significant lead time in the drug production. Additionally, he discussed with Subhalaxmi Nambi how his company Continuus Pharmaceuticals is currently the best solution to bridge the gap between supply and demand.- Rituparna Chakrabarti

An efficient manufacturing process in any industry is the crux of the economic success and market sustainability. This article focused on one such success story. Traditionally, pharma industries focus has been on ‘batch manufacturing’, with multiple disconnected steps. Further, a large plant footprint, magnified the risk of human errors and contaminations, running the system into time crunches. Annually, it is estimated that on average the pharmaceutical industries suffer a loss of $50 billion during the manufacturing process alone. In contrast, other manufacturing sectors, such as the electronics industries implement ‘continuous flow model’ where raw materials are funneled through uninterrupted steps, delivering the final product/services. The Novartis-MIT Center were among the first ones to embrace this model successfully in 2007. Their prototype system circumvented the major roadblocks associated with the stages of manufacturing. Now, it is not any more a far-fetched dream, that a tablet can be produced from the raw materials, just within two days.

A few weeks ago, Subhalaxmi (Subbu) had the opportunity to interact with Bayan Takizawa, a co-founder and chief business officer at Continuus Pharmaceuticals, Woburn, MA; a spin-off company from the Novartis-MIT Center established in 2012, for Continuous Manufacturing.

During the course of the interview, Takizawa highlighted that Continuus is relentlessly moving forward with their cost/time efficient plans. They aim at better plant footprints and drug quality through implementation of plant-wide Quality by Design. Continuus’ modular manufacturing designs further allowed modification and adaptation of an existing process for a new drug.

Bayan Takizawa exclaimed that “The continuous flow technology is a game-changer! However, we have to acknowledge several challenges towards its broader implementation within the pharma industry.” No doubt that establishing this process is profitable but involves initial capital investments. Moreover, many companies are not enthusiastic about overhauling their established production processes, a phenomenon often termed as industry inertia. However, the situation is changing as there are some early adopters. Continuus has worked with several companies ranging from innovative pharmaceutical to generic companies, leveraging its novel continuous manufacturing technologies. Additionally, they are currently working with government agencies, including the NSF (through their SBIR programs) and the FDA.

In the future, the incorporation of Continuus’ flow technology will enable companies to reduce their cost structures. The modular and flexible nature of the process design makes this technology ideal for personalised medicine applications. Dr. Takizawa is also interested in exploring how this technology platform can be exploited for the development and production of biologic medicines (e.g. oligonucleotides). He emphasized the importance of the rich Massachusetts’ life science ecosystem and how it has contributed to Continuus’s success, as many of the advisors and employees are from this area. He added companies can benefit greatly from the fruitful collaborations with the thriving Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) and the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council (MassBio) located in Waltham and Cambridge, respectively.

Continuus strength is the people with technical and regulatory expertise, who are flexible to work in a small company culture. Bayan explained they are always excited to welcome those future candidates aboard who are adaptable and willing to accept changes. He quipped “We appreciate someone disagreeing but not disagreeable”. When asked for advice for budding entrepreneurs, he laid stress on using one’s network to connect with interested and helpful people. He personally finds attending conferences to be a great connection-building exercise. Additionally, he believes that creating a competent management team is a key factor in building a successful startup.

 

Finally, he offered some advice for the budding entrepreneurs:

  1. Listen to others – we all think we’re pretty smart, but we have not done it all, and we can learn from listening to others
  2. Listen to your client
  3. Be ready to pivot (especially based on 1 and 2) above
  4. Be objective when picking advisors/directors – you don’t want to pick friends or people who you feel comfortable with – you need people who will provide good guidance and advice
  5. Be ready for tough times ahead – creating a business is not easy. It is important to be energetic, persistent, and resilient while being realistic (don’t be delusional!)

 

Continuus Infoshell….

 

 ———————————————————————–
This interview was conducted by Subhalaxmi (Subbu) Nambi (MS, Ph.D.) She is  a business development associate for Innovation and Business Development at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS). Her responsibilities involve collecting competitive intelligence and market analysis to determine commercial viability and competitive advantage of technologies invented/discovered in UMMS. She is also involved in understanding the IP of the ongoing projects in UMMS. Prior to this position, Subbu did a post-doc with Prof. Chris Sassetti on developing new approaches to understanding the role of genes of unknown function in mycobacterial pathogenesis and validating their products as potential drug targets. She obtained her Ph.D. in Biochemistry at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in India. Her graduate research focused on understanding the role of cAMP signaling in mycobacteria.
About the author:
 Anisha Zaveri recently graduated from the Indian Institute of Science and is presently a postdoctoral associate at Weill Cornell Medicine, New York. She works on the human pathogen M. tuberculosis while also dabbling in effective altruism, behavioral economics and data science.

 

 

About the editors:

Rituparna Chakrabarti pursued her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Georg-August University (Göttingen, Germany) and is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Biostructural Imaging of Neurodegeneration (BIN), Göttingen. Over years, she has gained technical expertise in electron and high-resolution light microscopy, in order to study the nanostructures of specialized chemical synapses in the sensory systems. She likes to have a bird’s eye view of her undertakings and gets excited with analytics. Passionately believes in, correct simplification of science, therefore engages in different scientific communication and public outreach projects. To unwind herself she plays mandolin and eagerly looks for a corner at a coffee house to slide herself in with a good read or company.

 

 

Uma Turakhiya, Ph.D. About herself Uma says “I currently work as a regulatory medical writer, having previously completed my Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Freiburg, Germany. I enjoy writing about science and believe that simplification of science and communication are the key to creating a scientific temper in the society. Apart from having a voracious appetite for books, I am enthusiastic about learning new languages, meeting new people and occasionally playing the piano.”

Featured image: Pixabay


The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

From Oklahoma to Manhattan- The Genesis of Sevengenes

in Entrepreneurship/Face à Face/Medness by

Where there is a will there is a way. This is the mantra followed by scientist-turned-entrepreneur Ayyappan Subbiah. Ayyappan started his journey in the field of Material Science, obtained PhD in 1997 from IISc, Bangalore, India under the supervision of eminent Professor C.N.R. Rao. Introvert by nature, Ayyappan had a desire to bring about some kind of impact in people’s lives. This passion was rekindled during his job at ConocoPhillips where he was working as a Senior Scientist. Ayyappan did not want to entangle himself in the rut of routine work and confine himself to the realms of bench experiments. This prompted Ayyappan to break the traditional norms and set forward his journey of entrepreneurship. With the help of two friends, Ayyappan founded LivePet LLC. The first product from LivePet was an anti-inflammatory supplement for the pets. In order to take the product from the bench to over-the-counter veterinary product, Ayyappan and his mates tested their product at Liberty Research Institute, NY and carried out a couple of small trials on 50 dogs. The dogs were administered a set dose of the supplement for 30 days and were tested successfully for the safety and the change inflammatory markers. All the tested dogs were safer and healthier at the end of the study.

After developing the novel anti-inflammatory supplement for the dogs, Ayyappan started questioning himself to go further beyond pet supplements. By now he also realized that as a responsible human being, the best job he can do is to help “towards making 7 generations of human beings living together healthily/happily!” But the bigger question was what will be the source of funding for his next project? There comes a point in life of every scientist when they look for their next career move. “I just knew that after LivePet, I couldn’t go back to the monotonous life of being a lab scientist. I wanted to make an impact in people’s lives and this was the right time” reminisces Ayyappan. Ultimately, he thought of self-funding his own project. He did not know how far his self-funding will take him, but decided to begin the journey. With this dilemma being resolved, the next question was the kind of project he should start.

My first instinct was to learn about the bottle-necks in pharmaceutical industry and look for the potential problems. I wanted to find solution to the biggest challenge of the pharmaceutical industry

says Ayyappan proudly. His research yielded him the answer for his quest. He decided to work on the solubility issues of the hydrophobic drugs. He says “About 40% of drug candidates filed with FDA and 90% in the discovery pipeline are hydrophobic and possess solubility/bio-better issues. Therefore there is an immediate need for a safe and better solvent (excipient) in the pharma industry.” He wanted to test one of his novel excipient/solvent technology idea from his materials science background with a hydrophobic molecule preferably a novel molecule for the first time in the pharma industry.  Literature search yielded an ideal hydrophobic molecule called triptolide which is notoriously known to possess solubility (and toxicity) issues but never became a drug just for those reasons.

Ayyappan took it as a challenge to solubilize triptolide in the novel excipient (7GEN) or the solubilizer. That’s the birth of Ayyappan’s successful start-up called Sevengenes (www.sevengenes.com ). Since then, there has been no looking back. 7GEN significantly enhances the solubility and bioavailability of hydrophobic molecules.  7GEN is very effective compared to existing drug delivery strategies (such as lipid and nanomaterials based) used for approved drugs.

So how does he fund his start-up projects? Ayyappan is deeply passionate about his project and he used up his 401 savings to fund his project. When asked about grant funding, Ayyappan did not want to divulge the details of his idea to the federal agency before gaining patent approval. He pitched in the idea to family and friends and they acted as amazing sources of funding. His MSc classmate wanted to help him and became a co-founder. Similarly, couple of his PhD colleagues from IISc also wanted to jump in and help and they have become co-founders too.  In addition, Ayyappan’s project was also screened by a non-profit organization, i2e (www.i2e.org) that provides funds to small scale biotechs in Oklahoma. With limited funding but tons of passion and zeal, Ayyappan and Sevengenes’ cofounders outsource their experiments to CRO’s and University of Oklahoma.

They are a pre-clinical company and would like to file their Investigational New Drug (IND) application on their first drug product 7GEN-TDTM when they get their first round investment.  They would like to use their 7GEN excipient (as a platform) for many other hydrophobic drugs and take 505(b)(2) approach for a particular combination.  Meanwhile, Sevengenes recently got selected by Alexandria LaunchLabs for an incubator space in Manhattan, New York from June-2017. Their might be restricted funds but there isn’t dearth of passion inside Sevengenes.

Infoshell…..

When asked about advice he will give to aspiring entrepreneurs, Ayyappan suggests that one should chase their dreams regardless of worrying about the outcomes. He believes that once someone sets his or her brain and heart to a project, the brain will work at its best to find resources to complete the project. Ayyappan has his background in Material Science and is yet a founder of Biological Science start up. He believes in working hard and fair. He credits his spouse and family for their support. He believes that it is a two way street. He saved up enough 401(k) so as to provide secured life to his family while his family understood and supported his dream of a start-up and his project. When asked about his mantra for relieving stress, Ayyappan says he enjoys yoga and believes in the power of prayers!

Ayyappan with Ananda Ghosh (Founder of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs).

About the Author:

Imit Kaur, Ph.D. is a freelance scientific advisor, medical writer, editor, and an active science blogger. She pursued her PhD in Pharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Chemistry from the University of Utah. She is experienced in the field of oncology, hematology, pharmacology, nanotechnology and drug development. Follow Imit on LinkedIn (Imit Kaur) or Twitter (@imit_kaur)

 

Featured image: Ayyappan in the auspices of Alexandria Launchlabs

Blog design: Abhinav Dey

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Gaurav Mittal brings technology to deprived

in Entrepreneurship/That Makes Sense by

Gaurav Mittal is an innovator, entrepreneur, hacker and in some ways a social worker determined to impact the lives of millions of visually challenged people. His latest work on a device called EyeD is already creating a measurable impact on almost 5000 users and counting many more with each passing day. The journey from an engineer to innovator is very interesting as well as inspiring and sharing this with CSG community is a pleasure.

He belongs to a small town in UP named Anpara. His father being an electrical engineer realized the importance of technology and obtained a computer with Windows3.0 installed in his office. Gaurav immediately took liking to the concept of computers and it became his passionate interest. However, he got his PC or ‘personal computer’ a desktop computer with Windows 95 after 3 years of persuasion.  Soon, he immersed himself in the world of computers and found a destination for his passion at IIT BHU. While at IIT, he developed and honed the skills of hacking and aspired to be a professional hacker. His dream got fulfilled very soon with an assignment as hacker at CITRIX technology. He thoroughly enjoyed the job of hacking the codes written by software developers and providing insights for securing and strengthening the software.  This experience enabled him to participate and win many innovation competitions while the ‘intrapreneurial’ environment of the organization helped in understanding the process of shaping an idea into a product. He was allowed a sabbatical of 3 months to work on such ideas and feels very fortunate to get that experience while working. These experiences positively sowed the spirit of entrepreneurship in him and the thought process.

A visit to the National Association for Blind (NABD) Bangalore in 2012 marks a turning point in Gaurav’s entrepreneurial journey. There he learnt the blind way of life (literally speaking) through experience for example, he was blindfolded and asked to go to main gate and come back to the room inside. He instantly recognized the fact that seemingly trivial tasks for people with vision translated into big challenges for the visually impaired. What impressed him most was the determined attitude of blind individuals in overcoming these challenges. His interactions with the NABD associates made him realize that some of them were extremely bright and could write software codes as well.  He could appreciate the challenges these students faced and how they could succeed in overcoming those to create something as complex as software codes.

During his visit to the association, there was another incident that set him up on the current journey. A senior official from a reputed company, who had lost his vision at an age of 30 years entered the room and greeted everyone but received no response from the 15 odd people present there. Everyone had an awkward feeling of confusion but patiently, he greeted once again. This time everyone responded and upon hearing the response, he turned himself to the crowd and faced them. During the first greeting, he was facing the audience backwards creating a slight awkward moment which got resolved subsequently. This particular incident left Gaurav pondering on the engineering solutions that could help visually challenged people feel the presence of people they are interacting with or their surroundings.

He turned these thoughts into a hobby project and created seven prototypes for seven different problems, including a glove with a camera and so on.  But he was shocked at the response received during the demonstration of these prototypes at NABD. His target audience rejected his prototypes as they did not address the ‘real’ challenges from a visual impaired perspective. He learnt an important lesson in innovation that day: always understand the needs of the target audience. He shares this piece of wisdom with all the budding entrepreneurs that to arrive at a solution with wide acceptance, it is important to communicate with the target and approach the problem with real world insights rather than embarking upon an intellectual pursuit. He now interacts very frequently with the staff and students at NABD to assess and understand their needs that require a solution and then designs the technology around those needs. He is motivated to come up with technologically superior solutions for the visually impaired life every time he interacts with his audience.  During one such interaction, he was asked a very interesting question on whether he can develop a technology that will enable identification of colors. The person had never seen colors but read about them in books and shared that he is dependent on family and friends to achieve even small tasks such as wearing color coordinated dresses and wishes to make these decisions independently without help. He understood that the most pertinent applications of technology in the visually impaired world are towards creating a self-reliant world where basic life activities can be conducted and enjoyed without help from others.

He decided to quit his job and make the hobby project into a professional goal that he is truly passionate about. He now works with a team of three to develop an app based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) for visually challenged that helps them identify objects in their surroundings, colors of these objects, find nearest hospital, store, read printed text on labels  and documents (which is free at this point of time). A blind person walking on Indian roads might not realize they are going to step into a puddle but with this app, they can. They currently support 5000 plus monthly users and their goal is scaling up to a million users in the next 5 years.

App interface

The astounding response from the users who could read the label on aspirin bottle at night without anyone else’s help and could sleep well, add red bell pepper in their food as opposed to a green bell pepper and many other stories of self-reliance keeps them pacing towards the goal and motivated against all technological odds. To keep this communication alive, the users of the app can interact with the developers directly via SMS/call/live chat that is a distinguishing feature and a direct translation of the first lesson in innovation learnt by Gaurav.

Their interest in transforming the visually impaired life does not end with an app but continues with  designing more products and solutions such as an adaptable keypad that can be pasted to the keypad of smart phones and uses audio feedback for typing.This improvised device and app together allow usage of Whats App, Email and SMS by visually impaired. They are hoping to launch this product soon and recognized nationally by Government agencies to win an award called ‘best innovators of 2016’.

Eye-D keypad on a smart phone

We hope that their story encourages some more people to come forward and innovate for challenged sections of society. Gaurav says that there are millions of problems waiting to be solved. You, my reader, pick one and solve one. If not, fail at one?

 

About the Author

Ipsa is a Ph.D. student at IISc. She wants to gather and spread interestingness. She prefers painting and drawing over writing. She posts her work on Facebook as Ipsawonders.

Edited by Dr. Satya Lakshmi

 

 

Finding antibodies in the haystack…

in Entrepreneurship by

Face to Face with Thomas Leung, CSO, BenchSci.

 

The first day I started my postdoc in the Bremner lab, I remember talking to Tom, a graduate student working in the “Epigenetics” wing of the lab. Being fun-loving and most importantly coffee loving, we instantly bonded and formed a team…doing Science and talking non-sense. I witnessed the BenchSci growth closely…it is amazing how Tom took his idea forward, pursued relentlessly and now successfully launched his startup, raising money from both angel investors and VCs. Within a short span, the BenchSci team won University of Toronto Banting and Best Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (BBCIE) Fellowship 2016, Ontario Centre of Excellence (OCE) Smart Seed 2016 and the Brightlane Entrepreneurship Award (BEA) 2016. To inspire potential start up seekers in CSG, I interviewed Tom recently about his journey with BenchSci.

 

ME: Tell me about BenchSci?

TL: BenchSci is a machine learning software that analyzes and decodes scientific papers to extract antibody usage data in the form of figures. These figures are then further indexed and aggregated to make them easily accessible to the research community.

ME: So, how did the idea get started?

TL: During my PhD, one day I was planning a new experiment, which required a lot of new antibodies for this huge Western blot. I was sitting in front of my computer, using conventional search engines and looking through PubMed to search for antibodies that have been validated in peer reviewed papers. After many hours, I thought to myself, “wouldn’t it be nice if there was a database somewhere that I can just input my favorite protein and I will be able to see all papers produced with different commercial antibodies against that protein?”. I started looking online and realized that such database does not exist, so I decided to build one on my own.

ME:  How did you go about it? What’s the process involved and how did you form a team?

TL:  To build this massive database, I know that I am going to need someone with superb programming expertise. My whole academic career was in Life Science and I do not know many people in Computer Science. I know that UofT is a great place with awesome ComSci talents, so I logged into my LinkedIn account and typed in “UofT, programming”. The first result was David Chen, who became our Chief Technology Officer. Amazingly, David is both an adept programmer and a PhD researcher in Neuroscience. I invited him out for a drink and we chatted for many hours and that’s how the team got started. I continue to look around UofT and assembled an awesome team right here, including our Chief Executive Officer, Liran Belenzon, MBA from Rotman, our Chief Database Officer, Elvis Wianda, PhD from Medical Biophysics, and our Community Architect, Maurice Shen, PhD from Pharmacology.

ME: How did your exposure in University of Toronto (U of T) help you in this pursuit, from a lab to a startup?

TL: UofT has many incubators aiming to nurture and support new ideas. We took advantage of this great opportunity and went to a few of these wonderful incubators such as the Hatchery at the Department of Engineering, the Creative Destruction Lab at Rotman Business School, and H2i at the Faculty of Medicine. Also, being a research scientist myself means I was able to talk to many professors and researchers to get valuable feedbacks and comments. For instance, our scientific advisors Dr. Jim Woodgett, Director of Research at Mount Sinai Hospital, Dr. Ruth Ross, Chairwoman of the Pharmacology Department and Dr. Ioannis Prassas, Staff Scientists at Mount Sinai, gave us many great suggestions that helped us develop and improve the BenchSci platform to better serve the scientific community.

ME: How is your platform different from the several antibody validation websites that already exist, like Antibodyreview, Biocompare, etc…?

TL: We are a true validation platform, meaning that we directly showcase experimental usage validation of antibodies in peer-reviewed journals. As a researcher, I realize the importance of seeing a figure more than anything, that’s why BenchSci is designed to show scientists antibody evidence-of-use directly in the form of figures, and not just a mere citation number.

ME: So right now what’s the design of your BenchSci website?

TL: It is very straightforward. All you need to do is go to our platform, type in the protein you are interested in and press, “enter”. We will show you a list of figures produced by commercial antibodies that target your protein of interest. You can continue to narrow down your search to fit your experimental criteria by applying multiple layers of filter including technique, tissues, cell lines, and disease models. We have a demo video on our website at www.BenchSci.com. For one minute of your time you will immediately realize how simple it is to use BenchSci.

ME: Do you plan to move to other reagents, other than antibodies?

TL: Yes for sure. BenchSci is a powerful software that can decode scientific papers, and we are also planning to target other experimental reagents that require validation information before making a purchasing decision.

ME: Is the software the end product that you will sell, if so, what is your future direction after that?

TL: We are offering BenchSci free to use for all research scientists. We truly believe that BenchSci would be helpful for researchers around the world. Many PhD students that we talked to had one recurring comment: “oh how I wish I have something like this earlier in my career!”.

ME: You mentioned to me that you are the CSO, but not the CEO of the company, although the idea is yours. For scientists like me who do know much about startups, can you describe how these titles work out? What or who decides these things?

TL: Each of our founders plays very specific role in the company. As the Scientific Officer, I am responsible for all things life science and biology related during product development, from backend data collection logic to frontend user interface search mechanics. I am not directly involved in the coding (which is done by David and Elvis), I design the scientific reasoning behind the code. Our CEO Liran is responsible for all things on the business side of our company. It is a triangle: Science, Technology and Business, each of the founder’s specialties in each of these components makes the team strong.

ME: There are two types of people who are getting into startups. One kind, like you, start with your own idea. On the other hand, I was attending a talk recently and the guy wanted to start a startup and he did some research on what’s hot right now and came up with an idea and went about it. According to you, which type is more sustainable? Or do you think both will work the same?

TL: The story that you build from the idea is the important element. A good story will resonate with people and bring more impact to the idea. However, the idea can either be something that took place in your dream, or something that was triggered after hearing another person’s seminar. The only difference is that, if you are creating a solution to a problem close to yourself, it is easier to convince others the value of your solution. It is more credible for a cell biology scientist to create a solution for the reagent problem than, for instance, an outsider from mechanical engineering. Let’s say I realized this terrible traffic problem on the highway and wanted to build a transportation system to solve this problem. This idea itself might be very good, but since I have no computer or engineering background, it would be more difficult for me to convince people about this idea.

ME: Finally, do you have any advice for beginners, who want to start a startup?

TL: Imagine a road parked full of cars, looking for a parking space is not going to be possible. If your car is your idea and the road is the market, with so many other solutions already out there, it would be tough for your idea and product to develop and grow. To build a startup, good “product-market” fit is important. Do not try to find parking space on a road already filled with cars. Instead, create solutions for problems that do not yet have a good solution. Maurice, our Community Architect, wrote a very good article for students who are thinking about startup, you can read more here.

 

 

You can find more information about BenchSci, see the following:

Company info: http://www.benchsci.com/about/.

Demo/Introduction video on www.benchsci.com

Company statement: http://blog.benchsci.com/2016/09/15/the-benchsci-story/ “The BenchSci Story”

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/science-startups-make-research-faster-cheaper-more-accurate/article32270645/ “Science startups make research faster, cheaper, more accurate”

 

About Thomas Leung:

 

Tom Leung completed his MSc in Virology and PhD in Epigenetics at the University of Toronto. For his PhD thesis, he investigated the molecular mechanism of repressive genetic bookmarking during cellular division and the potential application of reversing these bookmarks as alternative cancer therapeutic approaches. As a molecular biology research scientist, Tom experienced first hand the inefficient organization of biomedical publications.

Tom is very passionate about the development of a solution to better organize the vast amount of data in scientific literature in order to bring the most relevant information to scientists to facilitate the next big biomedical breakthrough.

 

About Manoja Eswara:

Manoja did her PhD from University of Guelph, Canada, where she worked on unraveling nuclear cytoplasmic transport pathways for transfer RNAs (tRNAs). Currently, she is doing Postdoctoral fellowship at LTRI, Canada, on Cancer Molecular biology and Epigenetics. Her work is focused on understanding the epigenetic factors involved in regulating replication and gene expression in Cancer cells and the potential use of small molecule inhibitors targeting them as Cancer therapeutics.

 

Featured image source: Pixabay

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The different hats of technology transfer officers

in Entrepreneurship/Sci-IP by

business-561387_1920

With the establishment of Bayh Dole Act in 1983, US universities started establishing “Technology Transfer Offices”, whose main job was to evaluate inventions coming out of their laboratories. This helped universities to protect their intellectual property (IP) and license it out to startups or established companies. Technology transfer begins as soon as inventors disclose their technology to technology transfer offices. A technology transfer officer then wears different hats- an inventor’s, an attorney’s, an entrepreneur’s, an industrialist’s or a consumer’s to weigh various aspects of the technology before he/she consents to file a patent. As simple as it sounds, it requires a sound knowledge of the science involved and the rules and laws of patent prosecution. It also requires the business acumen needed to license a technology after filing a patent. Let us go through these steps one by one:

Determining prior art: The first and the most important hat worn by a technology manager is that of a patent agent. He/she asks the most important questions on the disclosed technology that a patent office will also ask: Does the technology have “utility” in the real world? Is the technology “novel”? Given all the previous knowledge or literature in the field, is the technology described by the inventor “obvious”? A patent will be granted by a patent office only if the answer to the first two questions is affirmative, and the answer to the third question is negative. Based on literature and patent database searches for the disclosed technology and judgment from experience, technology transfer officers decide whether to proceed forward with the technology and file a patent.

Freedom to operate (FTO): Wearing an attorney’s hat, the tech transfer officer asks another crucial question: Assuming that a patent is issued for the disclosed technology, can the owner or licensee of the patent practice the invention without infringing upon other patents? In other words, how much “freedom to operate” does the patent actually confer to its inventor/owner/licensee when compared with other patents that have been granted in the same area. A patent that cannot be practiced is as good as not having the patent. It is like investing in a dead technology. No business will buy or license out the technology. Patent prosecution being a very expensive process, a technology transfer officer evaluates the FTO very carefully to decide whether or not to invest university’s money to protect the technology. In my future blog, I will discuss FTO in detail.

Market: The next hat that a technology transfer officer wears is that of a marketing analyst. A tech transfer officer is not only involved in protecting the IP but is also instrumental in supporting the development of the technology. The whole idea of protecting the technology is to incentivize the companies to license out the technology from the university to make it useful to the society. To attract industries to invest in the technology many important questions are asked in advance: 1. What is the current market for the technology? 2. What is the market landscape (what other companies are involved in the technology space?) 3. If the technology enters the market, how much market penetrance will it get? In other words, will the industry see the return of investment if they license the technology from the university? Stage of development: A crucial factor in marketing university-owned technologies is to gauge the stage of development of the technology. Most of the university-based technologies are very embryonic or in other words, very early-stage technologies. Such technologies, especially in biotechnology, need a lot of investment from companies who are licensing it, both in terms of money and product development. Remember, an issued patent has a term of 20 years from the date of filing in

Stage of development: A crucial factor in marketing university-owned technologies is to gauge the stage of development of the technology. Most of the university-based technologies are very embryonic or in other words, very early-stage technologies. Such technologies, especially in biotechnology, need a lot of investment from companies who are licensing it, both in terms of capital and time investment. Remember, an issued patent has a term of 20 years from the date of filing in USA. A technology that requires a long incubation time will eat up the patent term (number of years of the patent rights). Losing the patent term means losing the competitive advantage. Therefore, the technology transfer officer needs to ascertain that there will be sufficient patent term remaining for the company, to recover its invested dollars and generate a considerable return of investment on the product.

Tradeoff analysis: One of the primary objectives of technology transfer offices, as I have already mentioned, is to see the university technology get developed into a product that is directly useful to the society. Therefore, the tech transfer officer evaluates pipeline products of companies, their business and development plans, their market share and capital as well as their past performance in developing the licensed technologies. The question whether the technology is suitable for a startup or an established companies is very crucial. A startup will have a vested interest in developing a technology. Therefore, it will have a focused approach towards the development of the product. In the case of established companies, they will have several products in their pipelines. Therefore, their focus, and hence, the development plan my change with changing priorities that is heavily shaped by the market. At the same time, startups are risky, and their product development pipelines are not as well charted out as an established enterprise. Therefore, an important challenge for tech transfer officers is to do a tradeoff analysis to narrow down the companies that will provide the best opportunity for the technology to get developed into a viable product.

Technology valuation: This is perhaps the most difficult part of the technology transfer process in the universities for which there are no easy answers. In general, the technology transfer officers rely on past deals (also known as comparable deals) for similar technologies and market analysis to come up with a value. There are complex quantitative ways to estimate the cost of the product 5-10 years from the present day for a thorough evaluation. One can easily imagine the difficulty in predicting the market a decade in advance. The two most important aspects of valuation are license issue fee and royalty. The latter is most important for universities, as it is their return of investment for their innovation. It is through royalties that universities can pump back money into the basic research and infrastructure. They can also incentivize inventors by giving them a part of the royalty.

Salesman: A tech transfer officer also needs to be an excellent salesman. Like a prudent salesman the officer has to win the best possible deal (in terms of royalty from the sale of the technology (also known as consideration) and due diligence (DD) terms for the technology development) for the universities. This is the most challenging hat worn by a tech transfer officer. It starts when a company shows interest to license a technology for making, using and selling it as a product. The tug-of-war involved in coming to a perfect term for a licensing deal is a thesis on its own. It will be sufficient to stress that this step requires the wizardry of a technology transfer officer to win a profitable deal for the university to support everything that a tech transfer office stands for. During the negotiation process, the officer always makes sure that the interest of the university and its IP is given the supreme interest. Once, the negotiation is done, the deal is formalized in a license agreement and is then bound by the law of the state.

Police Officer: Following license agreements, tech transfer officers monitor the strict DD terms. DD is very crucial for technology transfer officers, because it acts as an instrument to make sure that the technology gets developed in a timely manner. Breaching DD leads to termination of the license agreement.

The final goal is to see that the technology gets developed and is transferred to the masses for their consumption, thereby advancing the society through cutting-edge science and technology.

Ananda Ghosh

https://www.linkedin.com/in/ananda-ghosh-3238a716

Entrepreneurship Experience in Bangalore

in Entrepreneurship/Face à Face/SciBiz by

 

I have been asked to put down my experience of starting and running a business in Bangalore. All of us have lived in Bangalore for at least 2 years inside the IISc campus. Our view of Bangalore is heavily skewed by our experience at IISc. My view of Bangalore was that it is a very settled, slow moving, high-tech and amazingly green city.

I graduated from IISc in December 2008 and returned to Bangalore only in January 2015. This time I was in a different part of Bangalore, the startup region – south Bangalore. I was pleasantly surprised to see the speed of development here. Everywhere you go, you will find boards of companies hanging over houses, buildings and shops, new buildings being constructed to house more and more companies. No street is left untouched by the startup buzz.

We started our company at a coworking space. The concept of cowork space is pretty amazing as it gives you a feel of office without being too hard on your budget. Most companies are bootstrapped at least in the initial period of their existence, our case was no different. Companies providing cowork spaces most often convert big houses into workspaces, where they charge you per seat (~5k) and also provide you with a registered address for your company. You can also get a dedicated room or cabin for your team at a slightly higher cost per month.

Being in a cowork space you get to interact with other startups and participate in their journey. I will often see a 3 member founders team suddenly getting a lot of funding and increasing their team to 30-40 in a matter of a week and then moving out of the coworking space. Others will remain stable and work on their product. Some will stop coming as their startups were not going anywhere.

Our company is now 1 year old, unofficially (0.5 years, officially). We are now incubated at IISc. Instead of putting everything in one post, what I have decided is to write to you in intervals as I go through more experiences.

 

Neha Satak Astrome Tech

 

Neha
Astrome Technologies (www.astrome.co)
(An Indian Space Technology Company)

 

 

 

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