India’s current lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic is an effort to flatten the curve, reduce the number of cases, and, most importantly, lower the looming stress on our healthcare system. These are grim times for our healthcare system, with even frontline medical personnel lacking the basic equipment required to prevent the spread of infection and provide patients with the medical assistance that they require. With COVID-19 cases rising steadily across the country, Indian healthcare startups now can innovate and set the pace for the “next” in healthcare. Entrepreneurs, investors, and technology professionals are rising to this challenge by pooling technology, resources, and expertise as well as diversifying models.
Given that time is of the essence, startups are now looking to deploy software and solutions that can be used easily, offer accurate results, and can be deployed rapidly. Recently, Mylabs Discovery Solutions was in the news for being a pioneer in developing a COVID-19 test that provides for early-stage detection of the virus. Indigenously developed, it costs one-fourth the price of an imported kit. With detection and identification of cases being a priority now, Onward Health, which usually works with cancer analytics, has now branched into COVID-19 diagnostics. “Earlier we used to look at the scans, X-rays, biopsy slides and patient data and use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to predict how a patient would respond to medication and recommend the best course of treatment. Now, we are building a tool that looks at chest X-ray images and detects whether the patient’s pneumonia is in fact caused by COVID-19,” explains the founder, Dinesh Koka. “The tool will help radiologists. They have many X-rays to analyse, and our solution will help them make faster and more accurate diagnoses.”
Onward Health is also developing a computational platform for drug repurposing and drug discovery. “We study similar illnesses, such as SARS, and identify the drugs that worked on those viruses. We then match the genomic signature across different viruses. By scanning the genomic sequence data of the virus, we can narrow it down to two or three potential drugs that could work. The research would be shared with a bioinformatician or biostatistician who would use the data and match it in their drug database bank. They would potentially arrive at the top one or two drug candidates. We then pass it on to a drug research team, which chooses one of the drug candidates.”
Onward Health is also developing a tool that analyses CT scans to detect the disease. However, to develop a useful AI tool, data is vital, and relevant data in this area is lacking in India. As a result, the startup is dependent on data from the US, Italy, and China. “It is a challenge. However, as X-Rays are the same universally, we will continue to build on that,” says Dinesh. “We have already applied to a few grants and funding institutions and have done live demos. The tool is two-three weeks away from deployment.”
Meanwhile, since early detection is as important as cure, healthtech startup Bione has developed a genetic test to check one’s susceptibility to COVID-19. It combines with AI and predictive analytics and provides customised recommendations to individuals to strengthen their immune system and fight the virus.
The need to ensure that people with other health concerns can avail of quality treatment without risking travel is also giving a fresh impetus to telemedicine services. Care.fit, a part of Cure.Fit, has launched telemedicine as a solution to increase consumer access to high-quality doctors across all specialities seamlessly and efficiently during the time of crisis in the country. The startup is also offering at-home tests and is working with accredited partners to enable COVID-19 testing at its centres, while providing home sample collections free of cost.
Building a tech-based future
Onward Health usually works with cancer institutes, hospitals and diagnostic networks that are their clinical collaborators. While the core AI and ML work happens on computers in an office, a lot of the data collection and research happens with weekly conversations with physicians. Their feedback is worked into iterations. However, this is on hold now, as it is not possible to have these meetings and discussions, which has affected software development. “Our sales processes are also affected as we cannot make any more sales pitches, and in the healthcare industry, selling over the phone is difficult,” explains Dinesh. Another challenge is the long-term funding. It will be a while before startups can think of raising the next round of funding and reaching out to investors. However, given the popularity of tech-based startups and their solutions during these times, there are opportunities to leverage. Here are several examples in this area.
Big Bang Boom has developed a remotely operated ventilator system to help doctors remotely monitor the condition of a patient. The startup is also creating an inexpensive DIY kit for manufacturing ventilators, which can be sent to primary healthcare centres (PHCs) across the country. Boson Machines and Divide By Zero Technologies are other startups that work in the 3D printing space and mass-producing protective face masks. Ethereal Machines has created a ventilator splitter using 3D printing and tested it at a local hospital. The splitter can split the oxygen supply from one source into a 50–50 ratio to two patients. It has also created a differential ventilator splitter, which can split the oxygen supply into 30–70 ratio if one patient requires more oxygen than the other. In this way, as we can see, the greater adoption of technology in India, is also increasing the overall opportunity for startups to ease the burden on the healthcare system and give patients quality care.
While startups are used to working with limited resources, the next few months will be crucial. It is now not only about surviving, but also about creating a conducive framework for the future. “While funding is the easiest solution, it might be the toughest one to execute. It will be more important to create the necessary infrastructure,” explains Dinesh. “We will need the government’s support to incentivise the adoption of technology. While the healthcare industry is being forced to adopt it now, the industry will see increased productivity and want to continue this way. Incentivising the adoption will also give a huge boost to tech-based startups,” he adds.
Despite its poor infrastructure and large population, India has launched a determined effort to halt the progress of the coronavirus pandemic. It is exciting to see startups playing a pivotal role in transforming the country’s healthcare system.
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