After a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology from the State University of New York (Suny), Buffalo, US, Anubhav Anusha, 25, did a research assistantship at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, where he studied immunology and specialized in tumour biology. A master’s degree in biotechnology with a specialization in finance from Georgetown University in 2009 was followed by a few short-term jobs with investment banks Focus and Rodman & Renshaw.
Having gotten a feel for both Wall Street and the lab, Anusha realized he wanted to be in a place that would allow him to connect research in biotechnology with consumers.
As early as class XI, Anusha believed in the “transformative potential" of biotechnology. “If used effectively, biotech can help us treat disease and increase yield for different crops, among other things," he says. While at Focus, he had overseen the sale of a genetic testing company and got to view the science and finance aspects of its operations more closely.
“From mid-2010, I looked at other companies doing similar work in India, and realized they are literally lifted from American tests that are based on European or East Asian populations," he says. In November 2010, he decided to work on a test that would be based solely on the Indian population.
“For instance, while a particular mutation could translate into intermediate risk of diseases for Caucasians, it could mean high risk for Indians," says Anusha.
So NutraGene offers five different types of tests for your DNA, and medication sensitivity. While the Complete Health Scan looks at 600 genetic mutations spanning all areas, there are also specific ones such as CardioMetabolic Health Scan; Medication Sensitivities; Weight and Fitness; and Cancer Risk Test. These are for people who want to check their DNA in relation to a specific disease, and will cover only a specific set of mutations (the Cancer Risk, for instance, will look at 200 mutations). These are cheaper than the Complete HealthScan which costs ₹ 10,000.
It works like this: Once you buy a test, NutraGene sends you a small package which you use to collect a sample (you collect a cheek swab yourself). You then send the sample back to the NutraGene laboratory (your sample can be collected from anywhere across India). NutraGene’s geneticists extract the DNA from it, screen it and generate the results which you can access privately on NutraGene’s website. This is followed up by complimentary genetic counselling and health and wellness consultation by the experts on their panel.
The test focuses on getting information on many India-specific issues. For instance, type 2 diabetes, one of the biggest killers in India, is said to be linked to a particular set of genes and mutations. “The TCF7L2 gene and its variants appear to be associated with the highest risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and also can predict the likelihood that a person will convert from a state of pre-diabetes (borderline blood sugar levels) to full-blown type 2 diabetes," explains Anusha. Knowing one’s genes and how they can affect your health will alert the individual to alter one’s lifestyle in time.
A service of such large scope had to offer a product which was also affordable. “India is a price-sensitive market," says Anusha. Some of the costs he had to incur include: lab technicians and geneticists, who analyse the data; a full-time lab; a large sales and marketing force; a service to collect the sample from people; and a team of designers for the website, brochure and marketing material.
“That’s where," he says with a wide grin, “my baniya thinking comes in."
While he’s not ready to reveal many of the little secrets of his trade (“the competition could use all this information"), he does say that one big cost-saver was the fact that most of the “staff" at the company works project-wise, and not full-time. There are no operation costs, only costs every time a test is sold. Scientists are paid per test sold. Sales and marketing people are also hired on a freelance basis. For the nationwide collection service, NutraGene has tied up with “regional" partners.
In March 2011, NutraGene was launched by going to big hospitals, distributing free samples and introducing doctors and clinicians to the test. Till date, 200 tests have been sold.
“I expected the Indian market not to be ready for such a product but I was surprised when doctors at Medanta, Apollo and Max (in Delhi) showed interest in it. The Fortis Centre of Excellence in Diabetes, Obesity, Metabolic Diseases and Endocrinology (C-DOC) has tied up with us, and doctors want to use the test," he says.
Anusha wants to develop other products around DNA testing; he is already developing an oncology test.
NutraGene is cost-effective and makes unique health awareness tools based specifically on the Indian population, he says.
This story was first published on 2 June 2012. It has been republished due to a technical issue.