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Pune: Deepak Ghaisas is targeting opportunities in the health management space by ensuring that children as young as six-eight years old provide for a healthy old age now, when the first of their 12 milk teeth fall. Ghaisas’ offering is built around stem cells, specially dental stem cells; he is trying to get parents to bank the teeth of their children.

Ghaisas is currently at the stage of building an ecosystem for the delivery of such stem cell-based therapies, as and when they are ready for rollout, under a global brand. He has created three companies, each addressing a different space in this area, under a holding company called Gencoval Strategic Services Pvt. Ltd.

One of the three is Stemade Biotech Pvt. Ltd, the brand for providing a range of services from storing the stem cells to their multiplication as and when required. Stemade is creating a bank of dental stem cells, collected when milk teeth fall or when a child needs dental braces and a tooth is extracted to make space or the later stage, at 20-21 years of age, when “wisdom" teeth appear and often have to be extracted.

The idea is that parents preserve the mesenchymal stem cells, found in dental pulp, by banking them in Stemade’s dental clinics.

“Stemade has dental clinics in seven Indian cities—Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Chandigarh, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai. We have a customer base of 1,000 people and there is an increasing acceptance that in the future biotechnology innovation will be a regular therapy," Ghaisas said.

The legal position is that the material is the property of the parents until the child is 21 years of age. Parents pay a fee of 1 lakh for the service. The person attains ownership once adulthood is achieved.

Ghaisas estimates there are around 125 million people in India who can afford to invest in this “derivative product, where the downside is 1 lakh and the upside, enormous! What’s the worst-case scenario? You lose 1 lakh".

Some parents seem convinced. About a fortnight ago, Mumbai-based hotelier Ricky Bhatia’s 13-year-old daughter had a fourth tooth extracted prior to being fitted with braces when the dentist suggested they bank it for the future. Bhatia owns Hotel Beach Garden in Juhu.

“I see this as a long-term insurance and like insurance, I hope we never have to use it," said Bhatia. “I think the technology for the use of dental stem cells is at least 10 years away...In any case, it is better to store it for the future than keeping it under your pillow and making a wish."

While Qayum Mukaddam, medical director at a leading pharma company, had heard of stem cell therapies, he chose to use dental stem cell banking for his daughter, who’s nearly 10 years old.

“Teeth are the richest source for stem cells and there is no invasive procedure involved or anything that could affect our daughter’s growth or development. We took our daughter to the dentist, who x-rayed the teeth to find the healthiest and extracted one, the most viable one," Mukaddam said.

Ghaisas first rose to eminence as head of i-flex Solutions Ltd, which later got acquired and became Oracle Financial Services Software Ltd, before starting Gencoval Strategic Services.

Anand Deshpande, chairman and managing director, Persistent Systems Ltd, a Pune-based software product developer, pointed to the similarities between the two sectors Ghaisas’ work straddles. “In 1990, Deepak was already the CFO (chief financial officer) at i-flex and who thought then that IT (information technology) would do all that it does? That is where his venture is now: this is the future and personalized medicine is a very big opportunity. People are getting sicker and they need cures, they want quality of life. So, this is an opportunity but also an exciting and challenging field," Deshpande said.

Ghaisas and his team were upbeat when this year’s Nobel prize for physiology or medicine was awarded to John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka for their discovery that “mature, specialized cells can be reprogrammed to become immature cells capable of developing into all tissues in the body".

Ghaisas said both adult stem cell research and investment will get a boost with this. “More and more people will prefer banking young stem cells as more applications become available in the future. Also, it is an indication that stem cells are not a mere hope but a cure which could soon become a reality."

Since the 1 lakh payment is made upfront, cash flows from the 1,000 customer base have begun. The mesenchymal stem cells are frozen on extraction and stored at a bank in Chennai for 20 years.

“We extract, separate and preserve, ensuring multipliability of the cells," Ghaisas said, citing the hypothetical example of a knee replacement surgery. “The doctor will ask the bank where the stem cells are preserved for an injectable form, when the bank will use some of the stored material, multiply it to create the formulation. That is autologous medicine, where a patient is treated using his own stem cells," Ghaisas explained.

Looking to expand the attractiveness of the service offering, Ghaisas said his company is in talks with insurance companies for a possible discount on policies of children whose mesenchymal stem cells have been preserved.

“An insurance company will benefit if diabetes is cured using this autologous treatment. Hence, they can give a discount to those patients who have preserved their mesenchymal stem cells. This will also encourage more people to avail our services," he said.

A French company, Institut Clinident Biopharma, in which Ghaisas has also invested, has developed the technology while the global services will be offered under the Stemade brand. Stemade India holds the licence for Asia-Pacific and the Middle East for these services while the French company will address markets in Europe, the US, Japan and Latin America.

“Building a global brand means that those Indians who might have gone to the West for this service, will feel confident about availing services in India under the same brand at a much lower price," Ghaisas explained.

An earlier plan had envisaged setting up a research and development (R&D) centre in India but this has now changed to a leaner model, including tie-ups for pre-clinical trials with hospitals. “We are doing pre-clinical trials at four-five hospitals across the country. So, for ophthalmology, we have tied up with LV Prasad Hospital and are in talks with a hospital in the north for cardiac and another in the south for diabetes. Once pre-clinicals are over, the therapy moves to Advanced Therapeutic Medical Products, or ATMPs, which again, we will not develop but deliver through our eco-system," Ghaisas said.

Yet another earlier plan, under which Stemade planned to make India its storage centre, has been modified. Now it plans to store mesenchymal stem cells locally, which de-risks the business and addresses future concerns about cross-border movement or storage of genetic material.

India’s low-cost production location will be leveraged in this ecosystem for the production of molecules that go off-patent in the next few years. That is when another company, GCV Life Pvt. Ltd, will act as an investment banker. It’s currently scouting for production facilities in India.

Reflecting on the similarities and differences between the IT and biotechnology sectors, Ghaisas said that in the 1980s and 1990s, the market for Indian IT companies was the US. “The R&D for biotechnology is outside India but we have a huge market here and we want to be ready to offer global services here," he said.

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