IIT-B’s BETiC making a difference in healthcare industry

At the 5th Annual Device Expo, IIT Bombay’s BETiC, headed by Professor B Ravi, shows the beginning of how innovative made-in-India products can solve the healthcare problems in India

Biomedical Engineering Technology incubation Centre has become a centre of innovation where more than 100 doctors and engineers are working together closely to innovate low-cost, easy and affordable medical devices. Low-cost healthcare devices can often replace the need for trained medical personnel. With this in mind, IIT-Bombay have now created 40 different novel and affordable medical devices. In an interview with Neha Wagle, Dr B. Ravi, Institute Chair Professor, BETiC shares about the innovations made by his team.

What are the top medical industry problems in India?

Indian medical device industry is hit from two sides. High-risk medical devices such as stents and implants where quality and reliability are paramount, are imported from companies in the West. On the other hand, low-risk devices such as hospital supplies where cost is the major consideration, are imported from China and other Eastern countries. Indian medical device industry is small in size and has limited resources to compete in either high-quality or low-cost products. The Indian medical device rules that came into force in Jan 2018 require the products to be properly tested and tried prior to licensing for mass production and marketing. While this is good in the long run, most Indian companies are not prepared for meeting the stipulated requirements.

How healthcare innovations can change the scenario in India?

Healthcare innovations, particularly novel medical devices for diagnosis and treatment can change the scenario by making healthcare more affordable and also creating new jobs in healthcare sector. The Indian medical device market is currently estimated to be $ 5-6 billion per year, and rapidly growing. However, 80 per cent devices are imported, mostly from USA. Given that the per capita healthcare expenditure in India is less than 1 per cent of that in USA, there is a dire need for home-grown affordable solutions. The emergence of disruptive technologies such as 3D printing, smart sensors, medical image processing and machine learning has opened up new opportunities as well as lowered the entry barriers for innovation in healthcare domain.

What kind of innovative medical device does India need to develop on a large scale?

Non-communicable diseases related to heart, lungs and brain, plus cancer and diabetes have become the top causes of death in India. Health of a mother and child are also a major concern. One major issue is that most Indians, especially women, elderly and poor people present themselves at late stages of disease, when treatment is difficult and expensive. Early screening, correct diagnosis and frequent monitoring can greatly lower the direct and indirect costs of healthcare. It is possible to develop such devices by leveraging the latest technological advances. This needs to be taken up on a large scale by bringing doctors, researchers, entrepreneurs and other stakeholders together.

What are the novel and affordable medical devices designed by BETiC?

During the last five years, BETiC innovators developed proof-of-concepts of 120 different medical devices, mostly through medical device hackathons (MEDHA) and medical device innovation camps (MEDIC). From this pool, 50 ideas were taken forward by full-time researchers, resulting in as many patents. Out of these, seven have been licensed to startup companies and five to industry partners. These include screening, diagnostic and monitoring devices, surgical instruments, prostheses, implants and assistive devices.

How do the state and central government support BETiC?

BETiC is a 5-year R&D project (2014-2019) primarily funded by the Maharashtra government through RG Science and Technology Commission. It owes its origins to a study conducted in 2009 by the Maharashtra University of Health Sciences, establishing the need for a biomedical engineering and technology center. The Department of Science and Technology, Government of India also came forward and provided supplementary funding support. Equally important, the guidance and motivation provided by Dr Anil Kakodkar, Dr Arun Sapre and Dr Prakash Dolas of RGSTC has been very beneficial in evolving the innovation eco-system of BETiC.

What were the challenges faced by BETiC?

There were too many challenges to enumerate here. We faced difficulties in attracting and retaining qualified professionals needed for medical device development; pilot batch production required for lab testing and clinical trials; understanding and navigating the medical device regulatory pathways; finding financial support after incubation of startup companies; and doing all this from constrained space – literally a shed in IIT. The persistence and hard work of core team, especially project managers led by Senior Executive Officer Dr Rupesh Ghyar overcame these difficulties. They held the team together, who in turn delivered on all counts beyond the original stated objectives in spite of all the hurdles in a typical public sector academic setting.

How BETiC brings industry and academia together?

BETiC started off by bringing doctors and engineers together, since we realised that it is better to identify unmet clinical needs (problems worth solving) before carrying out relevant research and development. This is in contrast to the traditional (academic) approach, where basic research is carried out first, and then practical applications are explored. In either approach, getting industry to take the invention forward is difficult, since they want a ready-made solution that is easy to mass produce. This is a critical ‘valley of death’ between academia and industry. We bridged this by working closely with a number of local vendors to produce the first batch of products (typically 5-10), and documenting the detailed process plan of manufacturing, assembly and testing. This helped in attracting potential industry partners for licensing the technology.

How innovations made in India can boost the medtech industry?

Indian medtech industry currently lacks adequate resources for research, product development, lab testing, clinical trials and marketing to create the required confidence in the minds of the customers. Now, several hundred medtech startup companies emerging from Atal Incubation Centers, BIRAC Bio-incubators and other technology business incubators across the country promise to change the scenario. Many of these are founded by young entrepreneurs, who are leaving corporate jobs to take on big challenges in healthcare domain. What we need are a few success stories of devices that are sold in large numbers and make the companies financially sustainable, while creating social impact. This will trigger all round support, including flow of investments into this important sector.

Universal health is a primary goal of the country and India’s healthcare is now set to expand rapidly driven by increasing awareness and spending by the rapidly increasing middle class. In such a period of change, innovative, home-grown medical devices from incubation centres like BETiC can totally change the ball game and give a new meaning to ‘Make in India’.