Unitus Seed Fund-backed Welcare Health Systems has developed affordable eye-screening devices to fight diabetic retinopathy, an illness which is likely to affect one in four diabetes patients in the coming years
Having spent over a decade as practicing ophthalmologists, Dr. Tamilarasan Senthil and Dr. Malathi had collated sufficient evidence to prove that there was a dire need for innovation in India’s eye screening space. To give a perspective on the market opportunity, Dr. Senthil gets into some number crunching. “In India, there are nine ophthalmologists for every million people, as compared to the U.S., where there are 81 ophthalmologists for every million people. Moreover, in the coming years, 50 million people are likely to be affected by diabetes, of which one in every four people will have diabetic retinopathy, an illness which damages the retina due to complications caused by diabetes,” says he. This led Dr. Senthil and Dr. Malathi to turn healthcare entrepreneurs and setup Welcare Health Systems (WHS), an affordable eye screening startup. “Literally, every person on the road needs to be tested for diabetic retinopathy. Through WHS, we are identifying solutions which are innovative and can reach out to the population on a large scale,” adds Dr. Senthil.
Literally every person on the road needs to be tested for diabetic retinopathy. Through WHS, we are identifying solutions which are innovative and can reach out to the population on a large scale.
The Chennai-based company partners with diabetic clinics, general hospitals and testing centers and sets up fundus (a special camera), which captures an image of a patient’s retina at the point of contact. Then, through a cloud-based device, the image gets transferred to the back-end team, which includes the ophthalmologist, who prepares a report and sends it back to center. Once the center receives the report, the diabetologist advices the patient accordingly. In fact, WHS is also in the process of developing a mobile device, which can capture images without the need for dilating the patient’s eyes. “Ultimately, our aim to work closely with the diabetic centers, without affecting the workflow of the clinic,” adds Dr. Senthil.
For now, WHS has partnered with Forus Healthcare, the Bengaluru-based affordable technology solutions developer, to develop the fundus, or 3Nethra, as the device is called. 3Nethra is available for Rs. 5 lakh, as compared to the traditional device, which costs around Rs. 20 lakh. “Often, doctors do not have the necessary equipment in place to conduct eye-screening for a diabetic patient, mainly because the traditional device is expensive. However, 3Nethra is available at one-fifth the price, is portable and enables remote diagnosis,” explains Dr. Senthil. While WHS invests in the equipment and bears the setting up costs, it secures a fixed fee on a per patient basis, from the doctors.
Currently, WHS has eight employees on board and has setup 20 centers across 10 cities. By FY15, it aims to reach 50 centers and a year later, it plans to setup 200 centers across the country.
Funding the idea
While initially, the company relied on internal accruals to expand the business, in December 2013, it raised an undisclosed amount of funding from Unitus Seed Fund. “We’re getting extensive guidance in terms of expansion strategy and back-end technology from our investors. In fact, apart from the network that we’ve built from over a decade of operating in this space, our investors are helping us further expand our network in national and international markets,” notes Dr. Senthil. He adds that the company is looking to raise a second round of funding in January 2015 to further scale up the business.
Working on affordability
WHS has worked on three aspects to ensure that its services are delivered at an affordable price point to its customers. One, instead of making the ophthalmologist visit the center to diagnose the reports (which results in paying a doctoral fee), WHS has developed a device that enables remote diagnosis, where the ophthalmologist can view the reports from his/ her place. Secondly, its team of ten ophthalmologists report and analyse tests at a fixed cost. Thirdly, as the device costs lesser, the fee charged per patient is also lesser.
Moreover, unlike traditional start-ups, WHS does not face a hiring challenge. “We don’t recruit new staff. Instead, we train existing staff at the centers we’ve partnered with and hold the testing,” says Dr. Senthil.
Leaping through challenges
Since WHS is an early mover in this space the founders faced several challenges in gaining initial acceptance from doctors. “They were unwilling to adopt this kind of technology. But once the first few signed up and gave a good feedback about the device, others followed suit,” recalls Dr. Senthil. Also, as the number of incoming patient reports grows, the company has to further invest in improving the back-end processes. “Right now, the numbers are small but in the near future we’re expecting to secure close to 2,000 reports a day. This requires more investment and we’ve already started the process,” says Dr. Senthil.
The biggest drawback with diabetic retinopathy is that it doesn’t have any symptoms. “Once you’ve developed it, it means you’ve lost a part of your vision,” says Dr. Senthil. Thus, as a means of preventive care, WHS spreads the word through doctors and by placing marketing materials such as pamphlets and standees at the centers it has a partnership with.
Looking into the future
Currently, WHS has setup 20 centers in 10 cities, including Erode, Amritsar and Vijayawada. By FY15 it plans to setup 50 centers and by FY16, it aims to take this number to 200. Moreover, WHS is also in the process of developing innovative models to screen children. “We plan to deploy the equipment in pediatric clinics and schools in the next three months,” indicates Dr. Senthil. In the long run, the company plans to develop eye-screening devices for infants and newborns as well. “There is an illness called retinopathy of prematurity, which if screened and detected at an early stage, can be cured faster,” he explains. While Forus Healthcare is developing the screening device for infants, WHS has identified another external manufacturer for manufacturing the pediatric screening device.
“We are not trying to compete with the existing ophthalmologists. In fact, we are trying to make it better for them, because, when we do mass screening, the reference goes to the local doctors and they get benefitted from this. It’s a win-win model and presents a huge growth potential within the country,” says Dr. Senthil as he signs off.
Concept in brief :
Dr. Tamilarasan Senthil and Dr. Malathi founded Welcare Health Systems Pvt. Ltd. on the premise that, in the coming years, in India, 50 million people are likely to be affected by diabetes, of which one in every four people will have diabetic retinopathy, an illness which damages the retina due to complications caused by diabetes. The company, in partnership with Forus Healthcare, a Bengaluru-based affordable technology solutions developer, has developed 3Nethra, a device which is placed in diabetic clinics, general hospitals and testing centers across the country. The device captures the image of a patient’s retina, which is then sent to the back-end team (including ophthalmologists) for analysis and sent back to the center, where the diabetologist advices the patient based on the results. Currently, WHS has setup 20 centers in 10 cities, and plans to expand into 50 centers by FY15 and 200 centers by FY16. In December 2013, WHS raised an undisclosed amount of funding from Unitus Seed Fund, to fuel these expansions. Moreover, it is also in the process of developing a screening device for children and infants, along with an external manufacturer and Forus Healthcare, respectively.
Welcare Health Systems Pvt. Ltd.
Founders: Dr. Tamilarasan Senthil and Dr. Malathi
Focus: Developing affordable eye-screening devices to detect diabetic retinopathy
Investors: Unitus Seed Fund