A moving microscope

MedPrime Tech makes microscopy portable and digital, and hopes to revolutionise diagnosis in rural areas

May 18, 2017 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

Mumbai: As a child, Samrat would have trouble watching his ailing grandfather in a hospital bed. Intravenous (IV) infusions, particularly, bothered him. “You have to monitor it (the infusion) all the time or else there will be a backflow, or an air bubble can enter the bloodstream. I was the only one there to do this, and on many occasions, failed to do so.”

The experience spurred Mr. Samrat (he prefers to be called by a single name) to pursue a B.Tech in biomedical engineering, where he began developing a device that would help with IV infusions.

InfuCheck was born soon after, while Mr. Samrat was pursuing his MTech at IIT Bombay. The infusion monitoring system could sound an alarm once the flow of intravenous fluid was complete. The idea culminated in MedPrime Technologies Pvt. Ltd, which he co-founded along with others he met at IIT-B: Binil Jacob, Mahesh Rathod and Greeshma Unnikrishnan, all of whom helped him realise his childhood dream.

“InfuCheck is something that came from my need. My motivation is to build things and deploy them in the real world when required,” Mr. Samrat says.

The Indian healthcare market, he says, is valued at over a$1 billion and the hope is that the company can make its name synonymous with next-generation, state-of-the-art healthcare equipment. “We want to make devices that solve the issues of the mass population in healthcare.”

All eyes on CILIKA

InfuCheck was just the launchpad for MedPrime, though. The team is focused on their next product, CILIKA, “the world’s first smartphone-integrated portable microscope,” according to Ms. Unnikrishnan.

Microscopy is still the gold standard for diagnosing a lot of diseases, she says, but impediments to portability mean it is still largely restricted to laboratories. The product is designed keeping in mind the company’s aim to make quality healthcare affordable to most.

“Most other diagnoses can be obtained at POC (Point Of Care) but microscopy is still in the lab.” In rural areas, for instance, a malaria test sample needs to be sent to the nearest laboratory and the travel time could take weeks. A long wait can lead to severe complications in the patient. Additionally, the weight and bulkiness of microscopes almost always results in a change of alignment when transporting it.

It’s all about size

Where CILIKA differs from regular microscopes is in its compact size and digital capabilities. The large size of conventional microscopes is primarily due to the path length of light required to achieve the desired magnification, says Ms. Unnikrishnan. CILIKA, however, boasts of a redesigned optical system to obtain the same path length in a smaller space without compromising on resolution or magnification.

This was the main reason behind creating CILIKA — to make microscopy portable and digital so that images could be sent from one place to another easily for diagnosis. Digitising microscopy allows it to be integrated with hospital information systems and coupled with the processing power of phones and tablets, some tests can even be automated. “These features couldn’t have existed before because the hardware wasn’t there. Now that the hardware is there, there is potential for all these facilities which can be done, so this is our current focus,” says Ms. Unnikrishnan.

While the team intends to manufacture other healthcare devices — an automated blood typing system is in development — the focus for the short term is to expand CILIKA’s reach, with the potential there a lot greater. “We want to build an entire ecosystem around this (microscopy) from making lives easier for pathologists in urban areas to making diagnosis as simple as possible in rural areas,” says Ms. Unnikrishnan. They want to expand their reach in rural India by manufacturing products that can be used by low-skill workers. “We believe we can make this device so easy that it can even be used by ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers.”

The team hopes for their products to permeate four sectors — education, research, pathology labs and hospitals, and the public health sector, which works with the government and NGOs in rural areas. Negotiations are in progress with the Odisha government to use CILIKA in rural areas. “Odisha has one of the largest numbers of malaria cases in the country,” says Ms. Unnikrishnan. “If we can decrease the turnaround time and make diagnosis easier, our aim will be fulfilled.”

The company is also looking at cloud services for pathologists where they can communicate and share their research with each other.

While InfuCheck won them a host of awards, the team is quietly confident that CILIKA could be their breakthrough product. Already, organisatons such as Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, L&T Technology Services, the Indian Council for Agricultural Research and Cadila Healthcare are using it. Hospitals such as Lilavati and Holy Family in Bandra are also using the product, and negotiations are under way with others.

For Dr. Pradeep Vaideeswar, professor at Seth GS Medical College, the product helps with teaching. “The ease of photography without lag, and the ease of storage makes it very useful for teaching,” Dr. Vaideeswar says.

Akshata Sawant at BARC also commended the portability of the microscope. “It is convenient and flexible.”


But getting investors to back a hardware company hasn’t been easy. “With software or app-based products, there is a certain scale that investors are used to seeing whether in terms of revenue or growth,” says Ms. Unnikrishnan. It isn’t that easy to predict such things in the healthcare industry. “People are used to seeing such scaling now so a hardware company doesn’t seem that lucrative for an investor.”

Additionally, says Mr. Samrat, getting professionals to adopt their product, in spite of its clear benefits, isn’t always easy. “When you build something new and people are used to doing something in a particular way, even if there is a problem, they are hesitant to change,” he says.

So what makes them tick? “Every time someone orders one of our devices it’s a personal success. Our products will make their lives easier,” says Ms. Unnikrishnan.

Mr. Samrat adds, “When we demonstrate our product in front of doctors it’s like solving a generations-old problem.”

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