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Curing Diseases With Incurable Hope And Toil Bengaluru-based Eyestem is working on an experimental treatment for dry age-related macular degeneration (Dry AMD), a currently incurable common eye disorder among people over 50 years of age

By Soumya Duggal

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Dr Jogin Desai

Making a ton of money in the healthcare industry is simply the byproduct of aligning one's passion with their life's purpose, says Dr Jogin Desai. Naturally, his business ventures—such as Bengaluru-based biotech startup Eyestem that he founded in 2017 to 'cure incurable diseases' at an affordable cost—are primarily driven by his patients' needs. "The important thing is to find work that is meaningful, that can make a difference in your and other people's lives," he suggests.

Dr Desai's quest for an affordable cell therapy product started when he returned to India after nearly a decade-long stint with Cenduit, a joint venture between Quintiles and Thermo Fisher, in the US. Previously, he was part of the founding team that set up Quintiles (now IQVIA) in India. Desai partook in several brainstorming sessions with scientists and scholars in the field, including Dr S. Ramaswamy, former dean of the Institute for Stem Cell Science and Regenerative Medicine (inStem) and Dr Mahendra Rao, who set up the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Washington, before zeroing in on cell therapy as his next course of action.

For his new entrepreneurial endeavor, Desai set up a team of clinical trial, cell therapy and ophthalmology experts through references, bringing on board Dr Rajani Battu as chief medical officer, Dr Rajarshi Pal as chief scientist and Dr Dhruv Sareen as science officer. Battu, a retina surgeon and head of ophthalmology at Aster CMI Hospital, has a PhD in retinal dystrophy from the University of Maastricht; Pal was previously an assistant professor and principal investigator at Manipal Institute of Regenerative Medicine; Sareen's last stint was functioning as the founding director of the stem cell (iPSC) core lab at Cedars-Sinai, Los Angeles.

The team began working on the Eyestem project in 2017 and spent the first two years developing the platform. "The company got cell sources, made sure of critical quality assessments and set other key components to establish a solid platform that could act as a base for innovation," states Desai, adding that the process was not without its challenges, especially those related to procuring capital. "Fundraising in this field is quite difficult since it is very hard, at an early stage, to project even which kind of product you are going to develop. Since I had worked in the drug development sector all my life, I could reach out to friends around the world who had worked within the sector for the last twenty years," he explains.

According to Desai, the seed round was completed almost entirely based on trust and instinct. The pre-series A round was joined by Endiya partners and Kotak Private Equity—two key names in healthcare investing in India. Last month, the startup completed its Series A round, raising $6.4 million from strategic investors, such as Biological E, Alkem Labs and NATCO, and others. Eyestem intends to use this funding to get Eyecyte-RPE—its patented flagship product for the experimental treatment for Dry Age-related Macular Degeneration (Dry AMD)—in human trials and to further solidify its cell therapy platform for targeting two more incurable diseases.

"There are a few entrants in this cell therapy sector and what sets Eyestem apart is its unerring focus on democratizing cell therapy access and making it affordable for a large section of humanity," claims Desai. As he continues to seamlessly fuse his personal yearning for improving the quality of human life with his professional role of caring for patients, he hopes that more people would take risks to marry passion with purpose and reap the consequent benefits.

Soumya Duggal

Former Feature Writer

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