Breast cancer is one of the most common cancer types that accounts for one of every eight cancer diagnoses across the world and the number is estimated to grow rapidly over the years. Even after treatment, breast cancer can recur and metastasize to other organs. However, the chance of recurrence is least when patient has been diagnosed early i.e, with small tumor which responds to hormones. Losing a dear friend to breast cancer motivated Dr Manjiri Bakre to start - OncoStem Diagnostics to develop innovative tests which help in understanding ‘risk of cancer recurrence’ and plan treatment based on that. After 5 years of R&D and hard work, she, along with her team, launched innovative flagship test “Can Assist Breast” to predict risk of cancer recurrence/metastasis among select early stage breast cancer patients to facilitate them with personalized cancer treatment.
In an exclusive interview with Women Entrepreneur, Dr. Bakre shares the underlying idea behind starting OncoStem, the challenges she has faced over the years while leading the firm, and much more:
What motivated you to establish OncoStem Diagnostics? Tell us about the underlying idea behind the company and some of its most unique features.
While OncoStem was established in 2011, the seed for it was sown in my head a few years before that. A very close friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer and unfortunately her cancer metastasized in the body and she passed away in another country. The whole incident had a severe impact on me and made me think about how little we know about the tumors. I felt we do not “dig deeper” into the biology behind the cancer. Understanding “how aggressive the cancer is, will it spread/ recur” if diagnosed at an early stage is absolutely critical to plan optimum treatment and that was the primary idea behind OncoStem.
The idea behind OncoStem was to develop innovative tests that would help us understand tumor biology and figure out which tumors have a high risk of metastasizing or recurring in the body or to predict if they will respond to certain therapy. Our goal is to help doctors understand tumor biology better through innovative tests to help plan an optimum treatment for each patient. We have tests in the pipeline for additional cancers.
Shed some light on the various responsibilities that you shoulder as the Founder & CEO.
As the founder of OncoStem, I have enjoyed working on every aspect of the company be it getting funding and corporate responsibilities, hiring employees, conceiving the idea behind each test, visiting doctors and hospital administrators for collaborative agreements or negotiate with vendors for lab set up. While setting up the lab was a huge task, I also trained the early employees myself.
From planning the publications to data analysis and critically reviewing it, I have been involved in every step of writing scientific publications. I not onlylove to work with the team to develop products but also worked on selling it. For the last six years, I have worked with the team extensively on creating awareness in the clinician community about the product across India or abroad.
I must tell you that while I have done many of these tasks by myself in the early years now I have a very able management team which helps me with all these tasks.
Throw some light on the most critical challenges you face in your current role and how you mitigate them.
Access to investment: The healthcare companies need a lot of investment to build products. The HC focused venture capitalist fraternity is small in India and understandably look for returns on their investments rather quickly. For any product-driven healthcare company like OncoStem, it usually takes few years to build a healthcare product which is robust, accredited and globally validated. Thus the ROI takes much longer and that makes it hard for biotech /healthcare companies to raise funds.
"Our goal at oncostem is to develop innovative tests which help doctors understand tumor biology in depth and treat patients optimally resulting in better outcomes for the patients"
Access to materials: Another major challenge I have faced is in terms of accessing tumor tissues and long-term associated data or samples from nationalized sample repository which keeps clinical trial samples with long term data which are critical to develop new tests. There were few hospitals with visionary leaders who had well-preserved tumor tissues and patient follow-up records with whom we worked. We had to visit many hospitals in and outside India to access those samples and data, which were extremely valuable for product building.
Also, most of the key reagents needed to build products are not manufactured in India, we are importing all of them. It usually takes a long time to import those reagents, equipment and the time delay plus import duties are huge for a small startup. To mitigate these issues, we usually plan well ahead and order the reagents/equipment around six months before the actual date it is needed.
Access to human resources: Irrespective of the field, the current generation rather prefers to work for MNCs over startups. It is also really hard to find a resource for some of the specialized roles, such as Biostatistician or Developer on the Digital Pathology platform, as there are fewer requirements for such roles in India. We usually go abroad to find those professionals.
Acceptance of Made in India products: Finally, another challenge healthcare companies with innovative products face is in terms of the push for Made-in-India product. There should be a path/ guidelines for adoption of such products by our government bodies or clinical fraternities, which will further boost development of innovative products within India by start-ups.
Dr. Manjiri Bakre, Founder & CEO, Oncostem Diagnostics
Dr. Manjiri Bakre is a multi-award-winning cell biology veteran with extensive experience in multiple areas of technology and is the Founder and CEO of Bengaluru-based Oncology Diagnostic firm OncoStem. She has more than two decades of experience in R &D across basic research and applied research. Dr. Bakre has done her Ph.D. in cell biology from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and has done two postdoctoral fellowships, at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City, and Moores Cancer Center, University of California, San Diego