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Chennai: When Saleem Mohammed was working as a scientist in Monsanto India Ltd, a subsidiary of Monsanto Co., the world’s largest seed company, it struck him that when firms in Europe and the US were offering personal genomics services to help prevent diseases, he could bring the same to India.

Mohammed drew inspiration from a US firm called 23andMe that pioneered DNA testing for consumers. “I wanted to bring about same technology here and tailor it to the Indian context," he says. The genome, which is hereditary information encoded in an individual’s DNA, was discovered only in 2007.

He was also driven by curiosity about the information locked in his own genome. “My mother was diabetic, and I wanted to know if I too was predisposed to it," he says.

With that in mind, Mohammed, a PhD in bioinformatics from the University of Nebraska in the US, quit his job with Monsanto and found an incubator at the Vellore Institute of Technology, where as the lone member of his firm, Xcode Life Sciences, he worked on developing the technology for six months until December 2010.

“While I knew I had the technical know-how, I still needed complimentary skills like business development and marketing, which was vital for a start-up," he recalls.

That’s when he partnered with R. Narayanan, an angel investor and a serial entrepreneur. Narayanan, along with a few other investors, invested $750,000 in Xcode in three rounds of funding. On Narayanan’s advice, Mohammed changed his initial business plan, where the firm would screen the genome for 100 diseases at a cost of 40,000.

“Narayanan knew the market better, and told me that with the initial plan, we would only be providing information, but not offering a solution. Also, he believed it was too expensive," says Mohammed.

The new business model focused on lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular diseases and stroke, and provided preventive solutions. The charge was brought down to 14,999.

In 2012, Xcode launched its first product, called Life Long Wellness, which focused on finding the genetic predisposition to lifestyle conditions by screening a few sequences of the genome obtained from saliva samples and offered a 100-day customized nutrition plan to help prevent diseases.

However, Mohammed could attract only 200 customers in a year, not the 2,000 he was expecting. “Wellness is a grey area, there is no imminence for it as right now everyone is more symptomatic. That was one of the first things we learnt," he says. Also, as a life sciences start-up, the incubation period is longer and raising awareness on healthcare is tougher, he adds.

Based on this learning, the company is now entering areas where there is imminence. One such area is pharmacogenomics, which analyses a person’s genetic make-up for reaction to certain drugs.

“Currently, doctors may prescribe another drug only on a hunch, but have no concrete data to say a drug does not work," says Mohammed.

Xcode is targeting the drug called Clopidogrel, which is prescribed to prevent the formation of blood clots in arteries. However, it works on only 70% of Indians. “Many times, people are forced to go in for a bypass surgery or have a stent put in place in their arteries because the Clopidogrel drug did not have an effect on them," he says.

With pharmacogenomics, this can be addressed by either increasing the dosage or changing the drug. Xcode is partnering with hospitals and cardiologists for this project.

Mohammed says the same principle can be applied to drugs that are prescribed for chemotherapy and cholesterol to improve the efficacy of these drugs.

Another product where it hopes to gain a lot of traction, is a programme called Come Alive, in which it is partnering with beauty salon chain Naturals to help discover an individual’s genetic make-up with respect to ageing. “We assess the DNA from saliva and find your speed of ageing or level of oxidative stress that can cause DNA damage," he explains.

Xcode will be launching this product this month and will offer the service initially at eight outlets in Chennai.

The company is hoping its Clopidogrel and Come Alive programmes will increase revenue and help it break even this year as the products have more specificity and are also priced lower at 4,999.

Currently, the company is focusing on gaining a stronghold in Chennai before scaling up and going pan-India with its products.

Mohammed also sees Xcode transforming itself into an analytical life sciences company. “In four to five years, we want to be the largest repository of genetic and environmental information for India," he says.

Right now, there is very little genetic information on the Indian population, he claims, since there are only a handful of people who have decoded information on their entire genome. This is also because it is an expensive process, he says.

The good news, according to him, is that the price of whole genome sequencing is dropping. “It was more than a million dollars 10 years ago. Currently it is $1,000, but in the next four to five years, this will come down to $100, and you can take it to more consumers then," Mohammed says.

The 35-year-old with his 18-member team aims to build a reference data system on Indians by targeting and studying specific groups of population. The information can then be sold to pharmaceuticals for crafting personalized medicine and personalized nutrition.

Mint has a strategic partnership with National Entrepreneurship Network, which hosts the Tata First Dot awards.

Note: The story has been updated from its first published version.

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