It was a friend’s unfortunate death due to Breast Cancer that made Manjiri think of a scientific solution to early stage detection, which can help save lives. Manjiri has a doctorate in BioChemistry from Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Hailing from Mumbai, Manjiri had done two fellowships in the US and had worked in Singapore, before returning to India in 2007. She worked in Phillips Research in Bangalore, till turning to entrepreneurship in 2011.
On a recent Zoom call with MAKERS India, she said, “When the tumors are small, one should be able to control it. But when my friend was diagnosed, there was no test to find out the aggressiveness of the tumour. So I wanted to develop a test that will tell the doctor not just the location and size of the tumour, but also how aggressive it is and the chances of the cancer recurring. So doctors can plan the treatment, and the patient can plan his life – at least you know what is in store.”
However, she adds that the cultural factor is a major challenge in the early diagnosis of Breast Cancer. Even if the lump (on the breast) is felt for six months, some of them don’t go to doctor till it starts hurting, as there is a tendency for denial due to lack of awareness.
Manjiri tells MAKERS India that when she started up in 2011, funding was hard to get. “For investment I wrote to more than 50-60 venture capitalists; investment was mostly in IT sector at the time, not medical sciences. Biology startups, especially healthcare startups, have a longer gestation period. Venture capitalists want to understand when will they get return on their investment; but it is longer gestation time in our products.”
However, Artiman Ventures came on board early enough, and Sequoia Capital followed up with $6 million in funding in 2017. Since there were very few startup incubators when Oncostem started, Manjiri says, finding an office and lab space was hard. “But our tech was simplistic, so we could turn a part of the investors’ office into a lab and work from there,” she recollects,” she recounts, adding that her initial employees were all scientists who respected her background. “Being a woman entrepreneur is tough; but I was lucky in getting the right team,” she says.
(Interviewed and produced by Athira Nair)