All in the genes
In May 2013, Angelina Jolie revealed that she had undergone a preventive double mastectomy after tests showed that she carries the BRCA1 cancer gene, leaving her with an 87% chance of contracting breast cancer. However, 15 years ago, Anu Acharya had already begun heralding the new paradigm of health management harnessing personal genomics for better health. RITZ speaks to the Hyderabadi genius who coined the term Genomepatri (inspired by Janampatri, the Indian term for horoscope), a revolutionary test that gives a new dimension to prevention and cure. It goes beyond systems, organs and calls, this innovative test studies the DNA – the core that defines a person
Anu Acharya’s entrepreneurial journey started providentially in 2000, the beginning of a new century, when she decided to move back to Hyderabad from Chicago. She founded a company, called Ocimum Bio Solutions, which helps scientists in their research. By 2030, she hopes to reach out to more than a million lives.
Ocimum went through 3 acquisitions and two rounds of funding from Kubera Partners and World Bank, over a period of 14 years. But that wasn’t enough for her. “I kept asking myself,” she narrates, “What was it that I really wanted to do. The real desire was to be able to create an impact. To create a big impact you have to look at how you can actually affect people directly. When you are working merely on research side you are working as a sub contractor to the pharma companies. The process is long. So you are not directly impacting people. That was the main driver to start MapMyGenome.”
Anu’s dad was a professor of physics and she wanted to study physics at IIT. “I wanted to become a Nobel laureate in physics during my school days. I did join IIT Kharagpur for physics but soon changed my plan. I did some soul searching and knew that entrepreneurship was my calling. After researching and brainstorming on several ideas, we founded Ocimum Biosolutions in 2000 as a pure bioinformatics company. In a few years, we grew to become a global genomics outsourcing partner for discovery, development and diagnostics with three international acquisitions and raising two funds,” she says proudly.
Curious to know more we ask Any how Mapmygenome was conceived. She explains, “By 2011, we had 11plus years of expertise in genomics. It was time to start thinking about the next level. How can we use the knowledge gained to reach out to a large number of people? Can we impact people’s lives? Genomics in healthcare looked like the best way to go ahead. In addition to knowledge of genomics, we had a state-of-the-art laboratory, a team of bioinformatics experts, and access to gold standard databases – the perfect mix of elements required for a genomics company. We started working on this, registering the company Mapmygenome in 2012 and offering the services to public beginning in April 2013.”
What are the main offerings and objectives of the venture, we ask. “Genomepatri, our flagship personal genomics product, is a once-in-a-lifetime, non-invasive test that gives your DNA-based health profile for 100+ conditions, traits, and drug responses. One simple saliva swab can help you know yourself better, prevent or delay onset of disease, manage weight, lead a healthy lifestyle, and protect your family.
We have smaller panels for heart, brain, cancer prevention, women’s wellness, and lifestyle management. If you are looking for low-priced tests, we have Sugargene for diabetes prevention and management and Slimgene for weight management. In addition to a report, most of these tests have a genetic counselling session, where our experts correlate your genetic findings with health history and give you actionable steps towards better health.
Another important offering to labs is the Spoligo TB diagnostic kit, which can help technicians in detection and typing of Mycobacterium tuberculum. We also offer a range of brain wellness solutions and molecular diagnostic tests on rare and cardio and neuro conditions,” she elaborates.
For something so path breaking, there must have been some obstacles, for sure.
“Of course yes,” she responds, “Being pioneers in the space of personal genomics, we knew we had an important and difficult task at hand. We were introducing a new product in the healthcare space. Confidence had to be built not only among individuals, but also in the medical community. Fortunately, many senior medical practitioners, who are thought leaders, showed active interest in this new technology and helped us build additional products and suggested changes.
Another challenge was to find the right markers that would work for people in India. We had to deal with issues like paucity of data. Having a brilliant bioinformatics team was the key reasons we could create the right algorithm and reports for the consumer and we continue to make it better.”
So how has the journey been so far, we enquire. “The journey as an entrepreneur has been very exciting. I was keen on being able to make it a brand that people recognize and desire. Challenges in moving from B-to-B model to primarily B-to-C model took a lot of adjustments in the way we function as a team. We had to create the right team to counter those challenges and it has been a fun journey. We must have done something right, that’s why we have received several awards and made it to top lists – ET startup – Women Ahead, Nasscom- Leage of 10 , VCCircle innovation award, FICCI – Innovation, SMart CEO…,” she says modestly.
What’s her daily routine? “No day is typical and that’s the best part of my life. I wake up at around 6.30 am when I am not travelling. Get kids ready for school between phone calls and answering emails. Exercise and get to work and then a range of different things to be done. Spend time with kids and occasionally experiment with cooking. Get back to work till about 1:30-2:00 AM,” she describes.
And what would be her goals for the future? “Mapmygenome’s vision is to impact more than 100 million lives and save at least 1 million lives by 2030. We are currently focused on expansion – increasing sales volumes and scaling up the operations,” she elucidates.
Any words of wisdom for entrepreneurs? “Know yourself – Spend time to know yourself. You are unique and you must remember that you are like no other. Believe in what you do. Delegate well – You don’t have to do everything yourself,” she signs off.