According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), cancer is the leading cause of death worldwide. Deaths from cancer worldwide are projected to continue rising, with an estimated 12 million deaths in 2030. The medical fraternity constantly stresses on the fact that early detection of malignant tumors is the best way to mitigate the impact of the killer disease. Perfint Healthcare, a Chennai-based healthcare devices company that was formed in 2005, set out to achieve just that.
Perfint was founded by four healthcare professionals, S. Nandakumar, K. Guruswamy, K. Puhazhendi and V. Gnanasekar, all of them with more than 15 years of experience from GE Healthcare. Nandakumar, who now serves as the CEO at Perfint says, “In 2002 all of us went out of the healthcare industry to other sectors. But very soon we realized we were fish out of water. We were itching to get back.” And often, the foursome met and brainstormed. Initially, they planned to work on a startup in the healthcare services space as it was their area of expertise. They were a part of GE’s team that worked on the world’s first portable ultrasound scanner. “So we knew what it took to build products, and the initial thought was even if we were in services, we would do work that was fairly complex.” But when they designed demonstrators (prototypes) of healthcare solutions for an international client, they decided that products would be their pet project for Perfint. “We just fell in love with one of these demonstrator ideas. Nobody had a similar solution in Asia and we decided to become a products company and PIGA was born,” reminisces Nandakumar.
Nandakumar says, Our focus is intelligent medical devices in the interventional oncology space. With PIGA, inexperienced radiologists can perform the diagnosis of biopsies.
A ‘need of the hour’ innovation
PIGA CT, the company’s first product took three years to build. PIGA is an intelligent device to support minimally invasive clinical procedures in interventional oncology. Currently, it works with a CT-scanner. Nandakumar explains, “PIGA’s role is to help the doctor plan, execute and verify at the diagnostic level in needle-based interventions. There is a software component to view the tumor and its location, a robotic component to place the needle in the right spot. Then the doctor intervenes to push the needle under the skin. The next step is verification.”
PIGA allows a fairly less-experienced radiologist perform the diagnostic treatment. In a number of district hospitals in India, radiologists are sometimes residents or post-graduate students. Today, some of these district hospitals don’t perform the diagnosis of biopsies purely because of the lack of skilled radiologists. They redirect patients to go do the diagnosis in city hospitals. That’s exactly where PIGA’s value addition comes in. Nandakumar adds, “We are an intelligent medical devices company for this reason. With PIGA, inexperienced radiologists can perform the procedure.” Guruswamy, cofounder and head of sales says, “It takes less than 8-10 procedures to get trained. This allows easy access to a diagnostic center. There is no time being wasted by going to a different hospital or a city for diagnosis. There is no doubt this is crucial.”
Research and development the key
Of course, product development in the medical devices industry is time consuming. It is research-driven, and more importantly, the quality of the device has to be top-notch. One cannot afford mistakes in this space. Puhazhendi, cofounder and head of products says, “Let me break down the different aspects of product development. There is hardware, algorithms to support the software, the robot, a firmware to coordinate between the robot and the hardware and then we have industrial design and the overall product architecture.” He adds that some portions of product development could have been outsourced, but they consciously decided to develop it completely in-house to gain that knowledge.
Nandakumar adds, “Unlike in the services space where you probably start the cycle with a client on board, here you need to have the patience to get the product out. You need to have the staying power, the capital and more importantly the ability to come back from setbacks.” Puhazhendi adds, “Mid-way we realized a regular industrial robot will not work. We had to take corrective action quickly.”
Perfint’s sales strategy is fairly straightforward. They started off with the large diagnostic centers and leading research institutions. Nandakumar says, “Working with the leading research institutions helps add credibility to your product. It also helps you test out and iron out any glitches”. Guruswamy adds that apart from being a clinically great product, you also have to be a commercially viable product. “The diagnostic centers want a product that also gives them a good return on investment. A typical customer today will pay around Rs. 15 lakhs for PIGA.”
In addition to direct sales, Perfint is also taking the distributor and OEM routes. They have a partnership with GE Healthcare to sell PIGA to their current CT Scan users. “It’s typically part of GE’s strategy to sell value-additions, and that’s where we fit in,” says Guruswamy. They also play a role in organizing continuing medical programs to educate their target market. This helps in building awareness and explaining to the prospective customers the latest innovations in the medical world.
Slated for growth
Perfint is currently funded by IDG Ventures India and Erasmic Venture Fund to the tune of USD 3.5 million. Perfint’s next product is in the same interventional oncology space with a focus on the therapeutic treatments. Nandakumar adds, “It’s slated to come out in April 2011. Our goal is to enable every aspect on interventional oncology.” When quipped about their biggest challenges, Nandakumar says, “The immediate challenge is to make our customers adopt our product. Eventually, the main aspect is to deliver great quality products, and stay ahead of competition. The key is to keep innovating.” Perfint is looking at raising another USD 10 million to fuel growth. And for the benefit of society, let us hope they keep innovating and delivering great products that enable the treatment of this dreadful disease.