Need for a Bridging Gap for Healthcare Innovation in the Startup Ecosystem of India

A solitary medical technology device can assess thousands of seemingly healthy individuals for latent diseases within a day. However, the creation of such a device often spans thousands of days, marked by various visible and hidden hurdles encountered during the product development process.

India boasts a wealth of medtech startups offering highly innovative products. When these technologies are successfully commercialized, they have the potential to extend quality healthcare to millions who lack access or affordability. However, numerous obstacles can derail this process.

Grants for game-changers

Although grants are available to support very early-stage startups, and private equity firms are continuously seeking marketable products, there are numerous startups situated in the intermediate stages of product development, often overlooked in terms of funding opportunities.

As a result, clinical trials are nearly always obligatory before a medtech product can be brought to market. However, securing funding for a startup’s clinical trial—a rigorous and meticulous process—is often challenging. These mid-journey startups find themselves in a Catch-22 scenario: they possess the potential to develop a lucrative product, yet lack the necessary funds for continued product advancement. Consequently, they require timely support from various sources.

Cash and counsel

At the forefront of necessities is patient capital—funds that, upon infusion, assist in mitigating the risks associated with a startup’s product development journey and eventually culminate in the availability of a commercially viable product, albeit many years later. In the absence of alternative financial support avenues, philanthropic capital stands as the sole entity capable of bridging this gap within India’s MedTech startup ecosystem.

Additionally, essential for success is multi-stakeholder consultation and industry collaboration. Frequently, medtech startups are comprised of small teams, typically consisting of two or three individuals possessing substantial technical expertise but lacking the necessary knowledge or skills to translate an idea into a product, or to transition from an academic group to a thriving business entity.

Grant-based programs that offer support to startups, coupled with assistance from industry and field partners, and provide sustained funding to propel them to the next stage of product development, have the potential to be the key to success for medtech startups. Over the past three years, Pfizer and Social Alpha have collaborated to design and implement such a program.

The Pfizer INDovation programme

The Pfizer INDovation Programme strategically aligns its startup scouting strategy with the objectives of government health initiatives such as the National Health Mission and Ayushman Bharat. It provides medtech startups with a comprehensive range of services, including product engineering and development, clinical validation support, regulatory advisory assistance, and market access opportunities. Through grant support and catalytic cross-industry collaborations, the program aims to empower startups to address critical healthcare challenges effectively.

Selected startups that exhibit scalability, impact potential, and a sustainable business model are awarded milestone-linked grants from Pfizer. They are then guided through a customized acceleration path, using Social Alpha’s team, resources, and extensive industry network. This support enables startups to navigate challenges effectively and maximize their growth trajectory.

Programme USPs

The Pfizer INDovation program plays a crucial role in assisting startups to become market-ready and successfully commercialize their products. Collaborating with a range of partners including NITI Aayog, IIT Delhi, hospital chains, and other healthcare organizations, this initiative harnesses the collective expertise and resources of multiple stakeholders to facilitate the growth and success of participating startups.

The inaugural cohort of this program has narrowed its focus to two key areas: oncology and digital health. By concentrating on these specific domains, the program aims to foster innovation that effectively addresses the numerous challenges present within these fields.

Partners and progress

Led by Social Alpha, the program architecture serves as a facilitator for all participating startups in general while also aiding individual startups in reaching their specific milestones. At the program’s initiation, Bengaluru’s Cytecare Hospital reviewed the clinical fitments of all startups, while St John’s Research Institute (SJRI) assessed their clinical protocols. Social Alpha conducted reviews and offered guidance on software platforms and intelligence architecture. Throughout the journey, each selected startup has derived unique benefits from the program.

Oncophenomics is currently conducting a pre-clinical study to evaluate the accuracy of its liquid biopsy test for the diagnosis of breast, ovarian, prostate, and pancreatic cancer. Collaborating with the Adyar Cancer Institute in Chennai, Pragmatech is assessing the efficacy and user experience of its cervical cancer screening kit. Throughout the program, Pragmatech has obtained all necessary certifications and has progressed to contract manufacturing with a cGMP facility. Additionally, Ramja Genosensor’s device for measuring antimicrobial resistance has obtained the CDSCO manufacturing license and ISO 13458 certification and is on the verge of commencing large-scale validation trials.

Brainsight AI’s platform is currently undergoing a clinical validation study at SJRI to verify its effectiveness as a decision-aid tool aimed at enhancing outcomes in brain tumour surgeries. Likewise, Teralumen’s device is undergoing clinical validation at the Mazumdar Shaw Medical Foundation (MSMF) and Narayana Health to assess its efficacy in detecting intra-operative tumour margins.

AI Health Highway’s smart stethoscope, AiSteth, has successfully validated its efficacy as a screening tool for cardiovascular murmur detection at Jayadeva Hospital, under the govt. of Karnataka, which specializes in cardiology. Currently, AiSteth is being utilized by Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) in rural Maharashtra through a partnership with PATH. Moreover, over 200 doctors across more than 12 states are utilizing AiSteth in their clinical practice.

Until now and beyond

The newly built ecosystem has provided startups with the opportunity to present their innovations at prestigious events such as the World Health Assembly in Geneva, facilitated by the support of program partner UN Health Innovation Exchange. They have showcased their innovations at a G20 event hosted by Pfizer.

In the upcoming phase, winning startups will receive assistance in accessing prototyping labs and technical guidance to aid in product development. They will also receive support for pre-clinical validation, regulatory advisory services, market identification, and user experience studies. This comprehensive support aims to further accelerate the growth and success of the startups involved.