Meet the Shepreneur Who Has Made Breast Cancer Screening Easy and Non-Invasive
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According to the World Health Organization, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, impacting 2.1 million females every year. In 2018 alone, it was estimated that 627,000 women died of breast cancer, accounting for nearly 15 per cent of all cancer deaths among women. And in order to better these numbers, it is increasingly necessary that there is early detection.
Dr. Geetha Manjunath, who has a postdoctoral degree in computer science, has come up with a screening test for women aged between 18 and 80 that can generate a report within 15 minutes. She founded Niramai Health Analytix with Nidhi Mathur, who takes care of business and finances, in 2016.
The Bengaluru-based start-up raised $6 million in Series A funding round last year. Japan’s Dream Incubator and Beenext led the round. Flipkart co-founder Binny Bansal is among the early investors in the company.
Prior to becoming an entrepreneur, Manjunath worked in varying research-focused roles at companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Xerox. It was during the stint at Xerox that one of her cousin sisters was detected with breast cancer. She was 38-years-old and had late-stage cancer.
That’s when Manjunath decided to spend some time on research around thermal imaging—a method that has existed for a while—and use computer algorithms on thermal images. Initially, the idea was to find the location of the cancer before she decided to use it for screening.
“That was a huge gap; today, there are no good screening methods for women below 45 years of age and I wanted to solve that using this technology,” says Manjunath. It took two years of research to arrive at their first product.
How It Works
Mammography is currently the de facto standard for breast cancer detection and the method is only applicable on women above the age of 45. It uses radiation, and so it is not advisable to use it often.
“What we do is we place a thermal sensor, which is kept three feet from the person, we measure the temperature variations on the chest using this sensor, which is like an infrared camera, and then our software, which is artificial intelligence- and machine learning- enabled, analyses these images and generates a report,” says Manjunath.
All of this happens in a privacy aware manner, where a woman enters a booth, sits in front of the sensor for ten minutes and gets the results in the next five minutes.
The idea of a non-invasive test also came from the learning that women might feel uncomfortable disrobing, even if it is a female technician. She says. “It is very critical for women to adopt the solution.”
According to Manjunath, the fact that both co-founders had several years of experience behind them could probably have been one of the reasons why they didn’t face a lot of problems convincing early investors.
“I think that's something that they have in mind is whether this person can deliver on the promises and because I had served in leadership positions before, that helped in removing some of that apprehension.”
As a woman in technology, Manjunath says she has faced situations where she is the only female in a room. “I got so used to it that I started ignoring these differences,” she says.
That they were two women trying to solve problems for women could also have played a role in making their path easier, adds Manjunath.
Niramai currently has two sets of products; one is for the commercial use case where they work with more than 50 private hospitals in 13-14 cities across the country while the other is a product focused on the less privileged which has a traffic signal-like output with red, orange and green lights.
“We have a report of all the people for whom the result is red and then they are taken to a hospital for a follow-up screening test,” says Manjunath.
While the second product is largely free of cost for the end consumer, the company works with sponsors to ensure that at least the costs are covered. For the first product, the hardware is imported from Sweden and hospitals need to pay up front for the equipment. Even so, it costs far less what a mammography test machine would cost, she says.
The hospitals charge about INR 1,500 for a test, and Niramai earns a certain amount per customer. More than 30,000 tests have been done using Niramai’s tech so far, claims Manjunath.
Going forward, the duo is trying to figure out ways of working with government hospitals and making the tests affordable for the patients while also looking at pan-India expansion.