Hippocrates (460-370 BC) called it karkinos. The earliest recorded evidence of it was found in Egyptian mummies and manuscripts from 1600 BC. Cut to 2018, and cancer is the second leading cause of death (according to WHO) killing about 9.6 million in a year.
But the slow-moving healthcare industry is poorly equipped to deal with this challenge. Sensing an opportunity, a bunch of young Indian medtech companies stepped in to fill the gap. According to KPMG, global oncology spend may touch $162.9 billion by 2020 from $106.5 billion in 2015. Using emerging technologies, such as robotics and AI, the start-ups are innovating across treatment stages, from diagnostics to prescription drugs.
It has not been an easy ride. When they started, the market was new, funding was scarce and there were regulatory rigmaroles. The scene is changing, but painfully slowly. Take the case of Bengaluru-based Panacea Medical Technologies founded in 1999. GV Subrahmanyam, co-founder of Panacea, realised the need for less expensive and technologically superior radiotherapy equipment. Today, its machine can treat about 70-100 people a day, and its lifetime (12-15 years) cost is 50-60% that of foreign players’ equipment. For the patient, it could cost anywhere between $2-4 per treatment.
“We took about six years to design, manufacture and get a regulatory approval for the first product,” he says. Subrahmanyam admits that the current revenue of Rs.300 million has been “considerably lower” than expected. Post its launch in 2007, Panacea has sold 110 machines, 75 in India and the rest in neighbouring countries and Africa.
Their biggest hurdle was to counter the perception that imported technology is superior to Indian technology. Adding to that was test laboratories’ inability to evaluate the effectivenes