Based in Bengaluru, it is hard to ignore the action in the Indian information technology (IT) and startup space. My interest in IT, startups and innovation at the incubation stage drives me to explore and write about inspiring entrepreneurial journey for Forbes India. Having worked for over ten years in the field of business journalism and covered everything from the corporate to the social sector, I have learnt to stay on top of news and leverage my experience as a reporter to lend depth and insight to the coverage.
When four professors of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, decided to start Strand Life Sciences in 2000 to aid clinical research through genomic testing using DNA sequencing, the initiative hardly attracted attention. UTI Ventures pumped in $1.3 million a year later and, in 2002, WestBridge Capital Partners invested $1.9 million, but that did not create ripples either. However, things changed dramatically in 2013, when Strand got $10 million from San Francisco-based financial firm Burrill & Co.
It used the capital to roll out personalised genetic test services in collaboration with hospital chains and clinics across India, including Max Hospitals, Mazumdar-Shaw Cancer Center, St. John’s Medical College Hospital, Kidwai Memorial Institute of Oncology and HealthCare Global Enterprises.
Genome testing and predictive genomics-based diagnostics was the cutting edge of life sciences research in the early 1990s. India, however, lagged behind because costs were prohibitive. Strand’s genomics-based diagnostic method now allows millions of cancer patients (undergoing chemotherapy) individualised treatment options that have a higher success rate. The company has also brought down the cost of such tests to Rs 20,000-30,000. Before these tests were indigenised, they would cost in excess of Rs 3 lakh. (Genomic testing for targeted therapy has proved useful for clinical decisions in more than 50 percent of the cases analysed.)
The men behind it
Vijay Chandru (60), Ramesh Hariharan (45), Swaminathan Manohar (54), and Vishwanathan Vinay (50) from the computer science department at IISc got together in 2000 to float Strand—the first company to spin out of an academic institution in India. In fact, IISc even holds a marginal stake in the company.
But getting financial support was difficult initially. “We didn’t start the company with a piece of technology that we wanted to commercialise… it was not a business,” says Hariharan, Strand’s co-founder and chief technology officer, and a PhD from the Courant Institute of Mathematical Science, New York University.
“Medical science was poised to turn into a big data revolution requiring novel algorithms, databases and multi-disciplinary approaches,” says Chandru, co-founder and chairman, whose research career in algorithms and computational mathematics spanned over two decades, including a stint at the US’s Purdue University.
And Vinay, who is the founder-chairman of LimberLink Technologies (a Bangalore-based engineering education startup), serves on the board of Strand.