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World Innovation Day: How a healthcare crisis is fostering new ideas and forcing research-culture change

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World Innovation Day, World Innovation Day 2021, India, coronavirus, covid19, India healthcareWorld Innovation Day, World Innovation Day 2021, India, coronavirus, covid19, India healthcareAccording to a recent study by Nasscom, about 19 per cent of all startups in the country are trying to leverage deep tech to build complex and smart solutions with some purely focused on health care and fintech. (AP Photo)

If necessity is the mother of invention then a healthcare crisis is apparently its father. If there is any doubt, it may help to look at the pace of innovations unleashed over the past 12 months under the shadow of COVID-19. From new vaccines that were made in a matter of months and not the years they normally take to new technology platforms developed like mRNA to the sheer creativity and innovation in how unique partnerships were forged to deliver vaccines and healthcare solutions – both globally and locally within India. The healthcare crisis has put innovative mindsets to test like never before.

India has also had its fair share in this and encompassing developments in vaccine-making to bridging gaps in the availability of key accessories like the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to even testing for COVID and now looking at ways to handle the rising caseload. Today, for instance, almost all the technology platforms deployed globally are being worked upon in India with just one company – Serum Institute of India emerging as a major supplier of vaccines and gaining global visibility and other Indian players soon set to carve out a niche.

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Power Of Networks

Kris Gopalakrishnan, philanthropist and the co-founder of Indian IT giant Infosys and the chairman of Axilor Ventures that supports and funds some innovative startups, sees innovation attempts falling into three different buckets – one involves developments in the actual science itself resulting in COVID-related innovations happening within the country (from making vaccines to scaling up virus sequencing efforts), second is the nature of collaborations emerging between industry, academia, government, regulators, venture funds and research institutions to not just take innovations to market but even innovatively addressing a problem – from developing vaccines to meeting key shortages as with trying to ramp up supplies of oxygen.”

Telemedicine To Oxygen Supplies

In June last year for instance, in a first-of-its-kind collaboration, an industry-backed coalition of over 100 healthcare specialists came together to launch a nationwide platform Swasth focused on COVID-care with an aim to remotely connect patients to health care providers. What started out with a core focus on telemedicine is today, according to Swasth CEO Dr Ajay Nair, emerged as a platform to connect various health care entities (hospitals, startups, technology providers and non-governmental organizations dealing with primary health care) to now focused on addressing acute problems such as making oxygen available. In the past five months, fearing a second wave it has already supplied 160 oxygen concentrators to remote districts across several states (including Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and others) and now, given the dire need for oxygen, is attempting to ramp it up to 2000 concentrators by mid-May and to speed up efforts looking for volunteers to help clean and verify data.

Leveraging Deep Tech

In fact, according to a recent study by Nasscom, about 19 per cent of all startups in the country are trying to leverage deep tech to build complex and smart solutions with some purely focused on health care and fintech. ‘Deep tech’ is very loosely an area where companies work on technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), Blockchain and genomics and deploy the engineering innovation for providing innovative solutions.

Financial Express Online spoke to a couple of players. Sample these:

Rethinking In Diagnostics

Kalyan Sivasailam, a computer science engineer and the co-founder of a Bengaluru-based alphanumerically named company 5CN (5 C Networks) is innovatively leveraging the power of networks to solve a health care problem and offer diagnostics as a service to hospitals and diagnostic centres. “We are building the Digital workspace for diagnostics in India. Patients test (scans etc) and associated information are automatically ingested into 5C” and he is able to then not just reach a specialist but in the shortest possible time. Explaining, he says: “We are able to reduce this time by over 70 per cent with our “scribe” algorithm. The case is then allotted to the best available diagnostic specialist using our MaxFlow Algorithm. The diagnostic specialist is then supported by our integrated algorithms : Charles (for Chest Xrays), Cerebro (for Brain CTs) and Cal (for Hand Xrays) which flag abnormalities. The outputs are transcribed by our “Sid” algorithm and the radiologist then reviews this in detail. Our model “bacon” analyses disease burden data across geographies and suggests appropriate differential diagnoses. The radiologist gives their final report. Finally, “sigma”, our product for QA, flags reports for potential errors, which are then reviewed by our internal QAQC team.”

He is seeing the impact in the number of takers: As against 2200 cases we used to handle each day with 450 clients (hospitals and diagnostic centres) in the pre-pandemic days, we are currently doing 7500 cases a day with 900 clients across 27 states. We are seeing one per cent of the total scans and x-rays happening in the country – that is roughly 750,000 in his estimate. Of these, those for COVID could be around 25,000. Financial Express Online has not been able to independently verify this.

Single-Round Pooling

Then, there is another newly formed company – Algorithmic Biologics Pvt Ltd, that has the backing of IIT Bombay professor Manoj Gopalkrishnan which aims to take to market solutions developed last year at the IIT Bombay in doing pooling method in testing for COVID but without having to do any repeat testing, which saves time, cost and effort. So, what is at the core of its single-round pooling method. Explaining, the professor says: “Tapestry pooling is our technology and the idea is that each sample goes into three pools. Each pool is tested by the RT-qPCR assay which returns a quantity indicating number of virus copies in the pool. Our algorithm solves using these quantities to identify positive samples and indicates the number of virus copies in reach positive sample.” More simply, he says, “in a single round we can identify which samples are positive basing on the pattern of the pooling result.”

Beyond COVID

And, it is not just COVID – one major healthcare crisis that India and the world faces is the growing antibiotic resistance – the problem of superbugs. The pace at which antibiotics are being consumed, there may be a case in the future when we may go in for a simple surgical procedure but come back with an infection that we cannot fight with an available antibiotic. To address this challenge, a startup called Bugworks Research was founded in February 2014. Speaking to Financial Express Online, Anand Anandkumar, its co-founder and chief executive officer, says, “we are small but essentially basing the model on the networks – that works with 40-odd partners – from Syngene, Narayana Health to Colarado State University and Tokyo Institute of Technology.” The innovative approach is not just partnerships (in fact Anandkumar prefers to call himself Chief Ecosystem Officer) but also the research focus. Very simply, he explains: “It is about looking at the efflux pump (transport proteins) that reside inside bacteria and turn on to resist an antibiotic.” The focus, says Anandkumar, is on designing antibiotic compounds that become invisible to the efflux pump. That is uncovering a new way at designing compound to combat antibiotic resistance. In terms of the status, he says if all goes well could begin phase one trials before the end of July this year in Australia (has apparently just got the approval there to conduct phase one trials) and after that come to India and the US for phase two trials. The same solutions could be deployed for biodefence solutions, which could have much larger applications – not just for India but even globally.

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