Late last year, 25-year-old Nitesh Kumar Jangir, anelectronics engineer from the Rajiv Gandhi Technical University in Bhopal, who had once dreamt of being a doctor, spent two intensive months prowling around the critical care unit at the St John’s Hospital in Bangalore.
At about the same time, at the same hospital, 23-year-old Vibhav Joshi, a graduate of the integrated electronics and bio sciences program from BITS, Goa, the son of two doctors from Pune, was doing the rounds of the labour rooms and talking to staff about women who were about to deliver.
Jangir’s two month immersion in the intensive care unit has resulted in ideas for two life saving medical devices — one to prevent the global problem of pneumonia among patients on ventilators and another to keep the lungs of new born babies open during periods of troubled breathing. It has also resulted in a new start up called Coeo Labs.
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Vibhav’s rounds of the labour rooms, discussions with his doctor parents and engineer friends has resulted in the idea of a portable medical device to accurately estimate fetal distress ahead of child birth — a problem that results in an estimated three lakh childbirth-related deaths per annum in India. It has also resulted in a new start up – Sattva MedTech.
In a city brimming with IT start ups, new collaborations between engineers, doctors and designers have jump started a small wave of start ups focussed on saving lives. In the last year at least six companies and two incubators to nurture fledgling health tech firms have emerged on the block.
Feeding the spurt, apart from medical professionals and engineers, are a few veterans of the medical engineering industry who were associated with global giants like GE, Siemens or Philips from the these companies set up research labs in Bangalore at the turn of the century.
Inspiring the push to create medical devices in India is the experience of companies like GE that created low cost, portable ultra sound and ECG diagnostic devices for the global market through labs in India, says A Vijay Rajan former head of product development at GE Medical Systems who is currently co-founder and CTO of InnAccel, an accelerator for health care device companies.
Innaccel is in fact currently incubating the companies founded by Nitesh Jangir and Vibhav Joshi and also has on board a 31-year-old doctor Jagadish Chaturvedi, an ENT expert from the St John’s Hospital who has some 16 medical innovations to his name including Entraview — a product in the market that gives rural doctors ear, nose and throat views on par with devices in big hospitals.
Contributing in a big way to the health care devices start up push is also the Stanford India Biodesign program, a nearly decade old effort by Stanford University, IIT, Delhi, and AIIMS to train Indian doctors and engineers to think in terms of innovation.
Dr Jagadish Chaturvedi who guides clinical innovation at Innaccel was for instance an early intern in the SIB program and is now one of the trainers in the program. Nitesh Jangir underwent an internship at the SIB two years ago where he created a device called Thorashield that helps doctors remove fluids that accumulate in the lungs due to diseases like tuberculosis.
The device Thorashield that Jangir innovated in the SIB was licensed for production to New Delhi based medical devices company Mecmaan Healthcare and was introduced into the market in March.
“Unlike in IT where you can create a solution and get people to adapt to it in medical devices we must be solving an unmet need. In IT nobody was dying to use MP3s but all of us adapted to it. Such things do not happen in medical devices. In the final analysis it is also about building a cost effective device that is safe,” says InnAccel co-founder Vijay Rajan.
Borrowing elements from the SIB
program and Indianising it, Innaccel has created a program where potential innovators undertake a six month long Affordable Innovation in Medtech training program that includes extensive hours at hospitals to evaluate unmet needs, says Dr Jagadish Chaturvedi.
“We were trained at Stanford University to select a focus area and spent two months shadowing clinical teams, interviewing doctors and and documenting things that are going wrong. Through a very scientific filtering process we narrow down from 200 to 300 problems to the top five or 10 and then we pick one for strategic reasons and then think of a solution,” he said.
Apart from the two start up ventures that it is incubating InnAccel is also developing in house two medical devices created by Dr Chaturvedi — a device for the rural market to remove foreign bodies when they get lodged in the nose and a balloon sinoplasty device. “The solutions we develop are tailored to the Indian healthcare market which is very diverse,” Chaturvedi said.
According to Nitish Jangir who was recently among 16 innovators chosen from the world over to present their innovations at a convention of the American College of Cardiology his idea for a system to prevent pneumonia among patients in ICUs came from seeing several affected patients.
“The problems we are working on especially the ventilator for ICU patients is not just restricted to India. We started with India and we later found that the problem exists all over the world. In the US it is a big problem with some 120,000 people acquiring this condition,” Jangir said.
“The patients are critically ill, they are sedated and the secretions cause inflammation of the lungs. Our product will stop the secretion from going to the lungs,” says Coeo Labs co founder Nachiket Deval a designer from NID who teamed up Jangir at the SIB program.