Start-ups from IISc, IITs tweak their innovations to address Covid crisis

Azooka Life Sciences co-founder Fathima Benazir
Tucked away in a corner of Indian Institute of Science’s (IISc) verdant campus in Bengaluru is the Society for Innovation and Development (SID), an incubator which aims to commercialise innovations with the potential to directly impact society. This year, it has been helping deep-science and tech start-ups fight coronavirus. As soon as the Covid-19 pandemic struck, many start-ups incubated at SID began work on repurposing their innovations — ranging from vaccines and affordable diagnostic kits to tech-enabled hand-held devices — in the battle against the virus.

“The starting point for innovation is always an orbit-shifting challenge, and Covid-19 provided that challenge to our start-ups, who were able to capitalise on it,” says C S Murali, chairman of the Entrepreneurship Cell at SID. “In the last six to seven months, 8-10 start-ups have been working towards providing solutions for Covid-19. Since these are deep science start-ups, their underlying technology yielded extensions for battling Covid-19.”

Take Azooka Life Sciences. Founded by Fathima Benazir and Alex Paul, it is developing a new class of safe fluorescent dyes and consumables for genomics research and molecular diagnostics. It has also developed a safer viral transport medium, and is working on an easy-to-deploy point-of-care diagnostic kit that will be useful in testing for Covid-19.

A daunting challenge in India is the large numbers who live in tier-2 and tier-3 cities and villages, and the need to reach them for testing and sample collection. Azooka developed RNA Wrapr, a molecular transport medium that is a safer alternative to the existing viral transport medium (VTMs), which requires a cold chain for storage and transportation of samples. When the swab is dropped into the molecular transport medium it immediately deactivates the virus and provides better RNA yields, which are critical for the RT-PCR (reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction) confirmatory test. 

“Our solution is commercially available and can be ordered. As of now, our manufacturing capacity is one lakh units per month,” says Azooka co-founder Benazir. “We are receiving orders from a few customers.”

However, the challenge that Azooka is facing is that Indian government tender systems favour vendors who quote prices as low as Rs 25 per VTM. “Azooka is trying to offer a safer molecular grade transport medium that is sub-Rs 100,” says Benazir. “We are appealing to a segment of users who care about the safety of their frontline health care workers.”

In Chennai, Helyxon, a start-up incubated at IIT-Madras, has developed an affordable and easy-to-use portable device that can monitor the vital parameters of Covid-19 patients (temperature, oxygen saturation and pulse) at home or in hospitals and stream the data to a smartphone app or a computer server in a hospital. 

Helyxon dashboard app
Helyxon has deployed technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud to streamline patient monitoring. One of its products is the wireless patient monitoring (WPM) system for Covid care centres and hospitals, which enables remote monitoring of hundreds of patients simultaneously and continuously, thereby reducing the stress on the health care system and freeing up hospital beds for severe cases. 

Helyxon has also developed a “98.6 Fever Watch”, an AI-based biosensor that is to be placed under the armpit. The app can be downloaded onto a smartphone. It connects to the phone using Bluetooth and makes temperature readings available on the phone, and can be accessed by doctors, no matter how far away they are from the patient. Helyxon says some of its solutions are helping patients in remote villages where even public transport buses do not ply.

The state of play

Many Indian companies are repurposing their innovations to produce home-grown solutions that can be mass-produced and made accessible to a larger population.

  • Azooka Life Sciences has developed a safer viral transport medium, and is working on an easy-to-deploy point-of-care diagnostic kit
  • Helyxon has developed a portable remote device to monitor the vital parameters of Covid-19 patients, as well as “98.6 Fever Watch”, an AI-based biosensor
  • PathShodh Healthcare has devised a handheld electronic device that can detect Covid-19 antibodies in humans through a blood test
  • Equine Biotech, a start-up like the other three, has built an indigenous RT-PCR diagnostic kit for affordable diagnosis of Covid-19

At IISc’s SID, PathShodh Healthcare Private Limited, also a start-up, is repurposing its technology for rapid and accurate Covid-19 diagnostics, which will also eliminate the need for polymerase chain reaction machines. It had developed a first-of-its-kind diagnostic system for testing blood and urine for all diabetes-related ailments, from research done by Vinay Kumar and Navakanta Bhat at the IISc’s Centre for Nano Science and Engineering.

PathShodh’s original anuPathTM system was meant for diagnosing diabetes and its related complications, and it was later expanded to enable diagnosis of Covid-19-related ailments. It involves the use of a handheld electronic device and a biosensor for detecting Covid-19 antibodies in humans through a blood test. The result will be faster and the process easier to use than conventional systems.

“We have completed trials with hospitals and labs for the Covid-19 antibody test and are in the process of sending it to the ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) to get a final certificate. It may take a month or so before the launch,” says Kumar of PathShodh.

Equine Biotech, another start-up incubated by SID, has developed an indigenous RT-PCR diagnostic kit for Covid-19 that has been approved for use in authorised diagnostic labs by ICMR. The test takes about 1.5 hours to confirm the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in patient samples, according to Utpal Tatu, professor in the department of biochemistry at IISc, and founder of Equine Biotech. The company is seeking to license its test kit and to work with med-tech companies for producing and marketing it.

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