A chance encounter set this social entrepreneur on a completely different path – one that was challenging, daunting yet hugely rewarding because of the nature of work. This week’s Changemaker profile is the story of a young cancer researcher – Dr. Pawan Mehrotra, who decided to forge his own path and create Aarna Biomedical Products, a social enterprise involved in development, manufacturing and distribution of high quality user-centric solution(s) for unmet/underserved healthcare needs. The first solution of this enterprise is Poorti – A post-mastectomy kit that help restore the confidence and dignity of breast cancer survivors. Here’s our chat with the founder, Dr. Pawan Mehrotra
Q. What was the inspiration behind creating the Poorti kit?
After years of cancer research work in England, I returned to India in 2012 to join The Centre for Chemical Biology and Therapeutics at National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru. My work revolved around discovering new therapeutic interventions for breast cancer patients. As I visited the oncology OPDs, I noticed that women who had been through a mastectomy looked visibly distressed.
On one such visit, I chanced upon an elderly couple -the wife didn’t talk to me or even establish eye contact. Her husband explained that his wife had undergone a right unilateral mastectomy and that she was far more disturbed because of the permanent void created in her body than she was during the whole treatment process.
He made a powerful remark which still stays with me – “Why doesn’t the hospital provide a solution before/post removal of breast(s) so that patients can get rid of this physical and emotional turmoil “– the comment stayed with me and I somehow developed a deep association with this issue.
Subsequent conversations with breast cancer patients who had undergone mastectomy revealed the dire emotional & physical deprivation that haunts women after the loss of one or more breast(s) as part of the treatment.
This unmet societal need presented me with an opportunity to help the cancer patients in a different manner.
Q.What was the initial response to your idea of creating a prosthetic kit to meet the needs of breast cancer patients, post mastectomy?
Being a cancer biologist, I had no prior skills in the field of manufacturing. But,
by the end of December 2013, I decided to come up with an affordable and accessible solution for every breast cancer patient in India who unfortunately has to undergo mastectomy. I knew I’d have to resign from my job to come up with a permanent and sustainable solution for this unmet need. I had no strategy or a team with me but was very clear that the solution had to come from patients who have lived with this problem. I wanted to follow an approach of inclusive product co-development where the eventual beneficiaries would be made the innovators and I would become a mere facilitator.
The response to my idea was skeptical, the silence I met with was definitely not approval, but I had taken an irreversible decision. We shifted base from Bangalore to Delhi and since the birth of my child I have been living with my parents who have provided immense financial and moral support. I resigned the day my daughter was born in February 2014 and today I consider Aarna Biomedical Products as my second child (named after my daughter Aarna) and perhaps my wife still considers it my second wife!
Q. How is the product priced and how do you manage to keep the cost so much lower than products available overseas?
The total cost of our full Poorti kit (comprising of a light weight breast prosthesis, two mastectomy brassieres, two prosthesis covers, a prosthesis holder, information manual and an outer waterproof kit inclusive of GST) is less than one fourth of the cost of imported light weight breast prosthesis alone. Without jeopardising on quality, we are able to keep the cost of our product low as we have developed our own patented manufacturing process, machines and manufacturing facility without the need of any outsourcing – plus we operate on margins which can just keep up the sustainability of our enterprise. Manpower costs are modest, and we recruit individuals who also believe that they are also serving a cause by getting associated with us. Our desire is to further lower the costs once we achieve full production capacity and economies of scale.
Q. What are your key learnings as an entrepreneur?
While I have shared my experiences above, there are a few lessons I would like to categorically highlight here. The first is that it’s essential to make your own choices with a clear purpose. Second is that there should be a value proposition for everyone in the whole chain. We earn value when others earn value through us .The third is that one should always have the humility to “fold to hold” – what I mean by that is folding hands is the only way one can develop long-term partnerships. I often find innovators for whom personal glory is bigger than the innovation itself and often forget that the biggest hallmark of any product or solution is dissemination. The final lesson is to choose your advisors/mentors carefully .The best strategy we discovered was to create a perfect balance between all these factors so that customers could actually guide our pricing and dissemination strategy.
Q. Do you plan to take the Poorti kit global, what are your plans for the next few years?
We are currently arranging funds for the CE certification of Poorti to take it beyond India. We have already served patients from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Russia, Africa and Nepal who come to India for medical treatment and their response has been overwhelming. In the next two years, we plan to be present in every state of India, create a bigger manufacturing set-up and self-marketing team. We are also working on two new products revolving around breast cancer – one in the awareness space and the other in the treatment space.
Q. Who would you say have been the big pillars of support in your journey to making the Poorti kit a reality?
Prof. K VijayRaghavan (now the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India) and Prof. Ashok Venkitaraman (Director, MRC – Cancer Cell Unit, Cambridge) and Prof Vaskar Saha (Director – Tata Translational Cancer Research Centre, Kolkata) supported my decision to resign and continue to remain as my mentors whom I can always approach for any advice.
My parents, particularly my father – Mr. Vinod Mehrotra, always laid emphasis on having clarity of purpose. My family is my biggest support.
Prof. P.V.M. Rao at I.I.T. Delhi reinforced my belief that user-centric product development should be the way to move forward. He also introduced me to Mr. Divas Gupta and Mr. Sandeep Kumar. Divas continues to work alongside me and remains my biggest support.
I am very thankful to Dr. Anil Wali, Ms. Kriti Taneja and his entire team at FITT-IIT Delhi for their support. Dr. Renu Swarup, Dr. Satya Dash and the entire team at Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC). Prof. Shinjini Bhatnagar, Prof. G.B. Nair, Prof. Gagandeep Kang and Mr. M.V. Santo at Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, Faridabad. Dr. Premnath Venugopalan from Venture Center in Pune, Tata Trusts in Bangalore where we continue to receive support from Mr. Manoj Kumar and Ms. Deepthi Reddy and Mr. Dhruv Pandey from FISE, Mr. Binayak Das and Ms. Nicole Deans.
Apart from the above support, guidance and mentorship from seasoned businessmen – Mr. Vinod Rattan, Mr. M.K. Arora and Mr. Purushottam Salwan was instrumental in the development of our enterprise. So was the exceptional support from various surgeons, NGOs, hospitals around the country who helped us in the validation of Poorti during its user-based feedback phase.
I am thankful to the key team members – Vicky Sharma, Mohd. Imran, Bhanu Singh and Pranav Mehrotra for their respective roles in expansion of the enterprise.
Editor’s Note: If you would like to help the Aarna team or want to know more about their products and work, please visit them at www.aarnabiomed.in.