(September 21, 2022) As a child, Anuradha Acharya would spend hours in a physics laboratory watching her father, a physics professor, work. In between conducting experiments, he used to encourage his daughter to be inquisitive and constantly seek answers. As a result, Anu’s world revolved mostly around science and technology. Along the journey, and after a little bit of soul-searching, a young Anu realised that entrepreneurship was her true calling. Her decision to give wings to her entrepreneurial journey coincided with the human genome sequencing, that was underway in the year 2000. The entrepreneur was quick to see the potential in the genomics space in the future. This became the foundation of her first start-up Ocimum Bio Solutions.
“What started as a pure bioinformatics company soon became an enterprise with top pharma labs using our ‘RaaS’ ( Research as a service), solutions, genomics database, and diagnostics kits. Ocimum became one of the largest service providers in the genomics space for discovery, development, and diagnostics with three international acquisitions and two fundraisers,” informs Anuradha Acharya, settling down for an exclusive interview with Global Indian.
Seeing the growth of personalized medicine, she launched Mapmygenome — a leading personal genomics company in India — in 2013. The company’s operations are spread across Hyderabad, Delhi, and Bengaluru.
Chasing her dreams
Born in Bikaner, Rajasthan, Acharya spent most of her life in a small campus town in Kharagpur, West Bengal. She first went to St. Agnes until the V grade and thereafter to Kendriya Vidhyalaya in IIT Kharagpur. Following her bachelor’s and masters in IIT, she went on to do two more masters at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1995.
The one thing she loved about understanding human genomics is that everybody is 99.9 percent alike. “All the human-created barriers of caste, gender, religion, and all of that are a little outdated when you start looking at it from a DNA lens, and yet we are unique. That’s hopefully the message we can spread across the world,” smiles the entrepreneur, who was named in the 2018 W-power trailblazers by Forbes.
Acharya worked with Mantis Information, a start-up in Chicago in 1997. It was a telephony product company and worked with a team of engineers to build software that allowed telecom companies to port consumers from one telecom operator to another. Thereafter, she joined SEI Information, a tech consulting firm. “Those were exciting times, pulling all-nighters, brainstorming with the team, creating codes, and building products,” recalls the entrepreneur, who subsequently moved back to India to start Ocimum.
Genomics has always been a fascinating subject for Acharya. Soon after The Human Genome Project was completed, she realised the potential of genomics in personalised, preventive health care. But the majority of genomic data was based mainly on Caucasian people. “At that time, India didn’t have the same access as the West to genetic data, and we have only limited data available on the Indian genome,” says the serial entrepreneur, who was awarded Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2011.
India was well equipped in understanding the technology. “But if we don’t look at Indian Genome and use it to build futuristic healthcare, then who will? That made me think about the direct-to-consumer genomics model based on prevention, accessibility, and affordability, specifically focusing on the Indian population,” she informs.
Led by Acharya, the idea was presented to the board at Ocimum Biosolutions, but they were hesitant to go about it due to the change in the business model. With expertise spanning 12 years in genomics, she saw this as an opportunity to start a novel initiative that impacted people. In addition to knowledge of genomics, the determined CEO had all it took to launch a new company — a well equipped with a state-of-the-art laboratory, a team of bioinformatics experts, and access to gold standard databases. ‘We had the right elements to start a genomics company with preventive health as its focus. Thus, in 2013, we started Mapmygenome,’ informs the super busy CEO, whose typical day starts with a black coffee, catching up on emails, and a bunch of internal and external meetings.
Being pioneers in the space of preventive genomics, introducing a new product in the healthcare space was not a cakewalk, especially when Acharya and her team had to make individuals and the medical community aware of the niche product and services they were about to launch. “Fortunately, many leaders in healthcare and technology and consumers showed an active interest in this new technology and helped us build additional products.”
Another challenge was getting enough information, the right genetic markers, and research material on the Indian population. “We had to deal with the insufficiency of Indian genomics data. Our bioinformatics team did a great job in creating the right algorithm and reports and we continue to evolve,” says the entrepreneur, who remained optimistic that the field of genomics has the potential to revolutionise aspects related to health, disease, nutrition, and fitness. Genomepatri, one of their most popular health solutions, primarily focuses on these aspects of human genomics. “It works on four factors such as knowing your basic traits, understanding relative risks in health, detecting if you are a carrier of particular genetic disorders, and then creating a plan of action from the prevention point of view with the help of genetic counseling,” explains Acharya, who turned every challenge into an opportunity to learn and grow.
Specialised learning and continuous improvement have been key metrics at Mapmygenome to this day. “Some positions do require specialization, especially in a lab or when it comes to genetic counselling. But there are opportunities to learn at work,” informs the entrepreneur, who believes in encouraging learning and evolving through experimenting, learning from it, and improving the workflow in each stage.
The people-centric approach in preventive genomics has revolutionised many aspects of healthcare. “Preventive genomics is slowly integrating with wellness as people of all age groups want to make informed choices about their health. They are understanding the value of genetic tests, especially in knowing their risk for cancers, carrier status, etc. and maintaining healthy habits,” Acharya points out, indicating just how healthcare is seeing a major transition from treatment to prevention in India.
Scaling new heights
She says with the Indian Government launching its first human genome mapping project to develop effective cancer treatments, one can also look forward to technological advancements that enable experts to correct disease-causing sequence anomalies rather than just identifying potential threats and offering alternative solutions
“Mapmygenome is focusing on combining genomics with biochemistry using machine learning. Besides, we plan to scale up our operations across India by setting up genomics centers and through meaningful collaborations with major healthcare institutions and service providers,” informs the recipient of the Astia Life Science Innovators award, 2008, of her plans. Recently, her company started a novel initiative to understand the genetic make-up of people who are above 90 to find what constitutes a healthy, long life.
Besides genomics, what other things interest her? “I read a lot of books ranging from science fiction to fiction to science and management books. I enjoy writing poetry and also simplifying science for the layperson,” informs Acharya, who has written a book called Atomic Pohe. The entrepreneur is working on another book as well. Investigative crime shows, science shows, and catching up with movies on Netflix are all part of her ‘me time.’