This is an email interview with the Founders of Swagene that will be published over two parts.
Introducing Swagene: Could you tell us something about your venture?
Swagene is an expert molecular diagnostic lab that pioneers bench-to-bedside translation of advanced clinical research for medical benefits in oncology. We believe primarily in knowledge sharing – by creating and curating knowledge on oncology diagnostics, we share it freely with doctors and patients. This is evidenced in the numerous speaking invitations we receive at conferences, hospital seminars and CMEs.
Focusing solely on molecular diagnostics, not only are we able to provide top-notch expertise, but also have the most affordable tests for oncology with the shortest turnaround times. We’re able to maintain quality by controlling all aspects of testing, including repeating procedures when a step fails to give assured results.
Dr Vani and I started Swagene to bring advanced personalized medicine to Indian shores. About 50% of our tests are first-in-market to South Asia, including for common as well as rare cancers. Our Cancer tests are highly sensitive and benefit oncologists and cancer patients in deciding which therapy to use, as well as monitor treatment response and detect relapse at a very early stage. We’ve started with certain uncommon cancers such as leukemias and sarcomas.
What inspired you to start a company which deals with cancer care?
As a molecular biologist, I’d explored the two biggest avenues career-wise. I enjoyed academic research and freedom in the best institutes in the world, but still felt there was some limitation. Then I briefly trialled the pharma industry and quickly decided that that’s not where my passion lies. I have this huge thirst for knowledge and discovery and that’s the reason we set up Swagene as a knowledge sharing lab, spreading awareness on advanced yet affordable medical options to doctors and public. Dr Vani was also in the midst of a career break and debating half-heartedly whether to resume her clinical practice. It happened to be the perfect mix and now we’re both in the zone doing stuff we’re totally passionate about.
Who are the key people involved in this venture?
I’m a molecular scientist with over 10 years’ experience in genetics and molecular biology from top institutions in the world such as the University of Cambridge. I went on to do three postdoctoral fellowships at Cambridge, University of Washington, Seattle, USA and EPFL, Switzerland. With over 10 years’ experience in molecular biology and genetics, I’ve teamed up with Dr Vani, a medical doctor, to offer advanced molecular diagnostics at Swagene. Dr Vani is a gynecologist-obstetrician with over 35 years’ experience in southern India and the Middle-East. She’s also an expert in patient safety and healthcare quality. Combining medical and scientific expertise, we aim to revolutionize patient-oriented care in South Asia.
What is that excites you about this venture?
Let me narrate a couple of anecdotes that makes this tumultuous journey highly satisfying. We have tests for completely novel markers in leukemias and other cancer types. A couple of instances when we gave positive reports for these novel mutations, the oncologists knew that the prognosis was not favourable but felt helpless as to what to do about it. During the course of our research, we had collected literature where clinical studies using particular treatment protocols had shown improvements for these patients, and were able to share these with the oncologists. Many of these being currently available drugs, the doctors were able to employ them with their patients.
Oncology is being transformed with increasing calls for categorizing cancer by its molecular signature and decreasing trend to focus on site-of-origin nomenclature. One of the biggest advantages of molecular diagnostics is that it is the most accurate and sensitive method available, which means diseases such as cancer may be diagnosed very early at an easily treatable stage. Late diagnosis invariably leads to high treatment costs and a higher failure rate. We’re changing this lose-lose proposition to a win-win for both patients and doctors.
Could you throw light on the vision and mission of this company?
At Swagene, we aim to make molecular diagnostics available, accessible and affordable to everyone irrespective of their economic status or access to high-end hospitals. This works primarily because we’re an R&D-focused laboratory, developing and validating new ways to reduce test prices, while assuring quality. Our niche expertise is what defines us and attracts eminent specialists in oncology to use our services.
What is that you find most interesting and rewarding when it comes to running your own business?
I think, what’s most interesting or rewarding has nothing to do with being an employee or an entrepreneur. Because, my most rewarding moments come when doctors seek us out for expertise, when patients call us requesting for information on our tests and reports. For instance, at one of the most respected oncology centres in southern India, after an invited seminar, the doctors that were earlier hesitant because of our new/startup status have started using our tests regularly. It is a stressful business because we feel responsible for people’s health and lives on a daily basis. So, it’s highly reassuring and rewarding when physicians occasionally call to confirm our diagnosis, especially when it is at odds with clinical diagnosis.