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Home > News> Big Story > Anu Acharya: The gene reader

Anu Acharya: The gene reader

The founder and CEO of Mapmygenome talks about building a presence in North America, dealing with private and sensitive data, and how growth has kept her busy

Anu Acharya, founder and CEO of Mapmygenome
Anu Acharya, founder and CEO of Mapmygenome (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)

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The Enercare Centre in Toronto, Canada, was the unlikeliest of places to catch up with Anu Acharya, founder and CEO of the Hyderabad-based personal genomics firm Mapmygenome. But given that we were both attending a tech event, Collision Conference 2022, there in June, it seemed ideal.

“What brings you to Toronto?” I ask Acharya, knowing fully well that she would not have flown 12,000km just to attend a tech conference. She does not dodge the question. “We are planning to expand to Canada and hope to do so within a year in some form at least. I am here to meet potential partners and investors and we may explore a partnership with an academic institution to begin with,” she says, sipping on water as we sit on a wooden bench under a tree in the heat.

But wouldn’t it make more sense to expand in the US first, given that you are well-versed with the country? I ask. The soft-spoken Acharya simply smiles, and dives into what the company does and how it operates.

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Mapmygenome offers personalised health solutions based on genetic tests and combines a person’s genetic health profile and medical records with genetic counselling. “In India, we typically go to a doctor when we are ill. But what if we can address the problem at the root and look at it from a preventive point of view? That’s the idea behind starting with the genome (the entire set of DNA instructions found in a cell),” Acharya explains. The company provides solutions like Genomepatri (similar to a Janampatri, or birth chart, of an individual), MyFitGene, Medicamap, MyNutriGene, Gynaecmap and Cardiomap.

Genomepatri Heritage, for instance, has been built using Mapmygenome’s own database and provides SNP (pronounced “snip”) mapping from more than 20,000 records, which include ethnicity composition, particularly for Indian sub-populations. Mapmygenome screens genetic data for the presence of these SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms), or “markers” in one’s DNA, to calculate lifestyle disease risk, predisposition to traits, drug response, etc.

“We have developed a machine-learning (ML) algorithm for analysis, based on the genetic markers present in your DNA sample,” Acharya explains. For example, her father would take Metformin to control his sugar. Six years ago, when her mother discovered she too was diabetic, the same drug did not work for her. Acharya changed her mother’s medication based on her genetic report.

Today Mapmygenome has genomics experience centres in Hyderabad, Delhi and Bengaluru where individuals can avail of services such as genetic tests, genetic counselling, blood tests, health screening tests, antibody tests and covid-19 RT-PCR tests. It also has a support lab and collection centre and partners with hospital and diagnostic chains like Apollo Hospitals, Manipal Hospitals, Dr Lal PathLabs, CARE Hospitals, and even online sellers like Amazon and healthcare platform 1mg. Individuals can buy the diagnostic kits online or from the experience centres. They can then get their sample collected and “get a 100-page report on the diagnosis with a five-page summary”, following which they can meet a genetic counsellor to understand the next steps, if they wish.

The firm primarily caters to individuals in India since there’s “no point in having a $100 product but spending another $100 to ship it. That’s why we thought it made more sense to build a presence in North America. But the fact is that the US has many well-funded companies in this space. Hence we are exploring Canada for our expansion,” Acharya explains.

This obviously brings up issues of client privacy, since the firm is dealing with so much sensitive data. How do you secure it? I ask. “When we receive a sample in our lab, we register it in Biotracker—our Laboratory Information Management System. Once registered, the sample is assigned a unique code to ensure complete data privacy from the start of the process,” she explains.

Mapmygenome is the second company Acharya has built. An Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur graduate, she was born in Bikaner, Rajasthan, and acquired a master’s of science (MS) in physics and MIS (management information systems) from the University of Illinois at Chicago—a course that provided the opportunity to code and learn how to run a business. She worked for a couple of companies before founding her own startup.

In 1997, she joined a Chicago-based startup, Mantis Information. Two years later, she joined SEI Information, a tech consulting firm. It was around this time that Acharya gave birth to her first child and toyed with the idea of returning to India and launching a company. In December 2000, she did precisely that, founding Ocimum Biosolutions with her husband, Subash Lingareddy. The buzz around human genome sequencing helped Ocimum, which was in the business of providing genomic services and reference databases, bioinformatics products and consulting services.

This preceded the frenzy about funding startups, yet Ocimum managed a “small investment from the World Bank”. In 2006-07, it acquired two small firms. “It was then that we got a private equity player to fund us for this specific purpose,” she recalls. The game changer came in 2012, when a banker told her Gene Logic, a publicly listed firm, was up for sale. “I used to really admire the company because they had very good quality products and solutions. In fact, I was trying to sell them software but they did not show any interest. I was keen on acquiring the company but it was valued at about $2 billion (around 16,000 crore now),” she says.

Acharya happened to be in North Carolina for a meeting, but, spurred by her instincts, travelled to Washington, DC for a discussion. Her persistence paid off when Ocimum acquired Gene Logic’s genomic business for $10 million in cash. The purchase included Gene Logic’s genomic and genetic services business, which provided customers with access to a bio-repository of over 80,000 samples at that point.

“We acquired their gene expression (when a gene gets turned on in a cell to make ribonucleic acid, or RNA, or a specific protein) database called the Bio Express. The other one—ToxExpress—was a toxicity analysis suite with over 14,000 untreated, vehicle and drug-treated animal tissue samples. But, importantly, the company helped us expand into a services-based model where companies would do a clinical trial and send us the samples for genome analysis, which was required to be submitted to the (US) FDA in a specific format that required a lot of documentation. This helped us grow our business pretty fast,” she recalls.

Around this time, however, Ocimum’s board of directors told Acharya she should either move to the US or find someone who could run the daily operations. “My big mistake was not to move to the US. Instead, I found someone whose resume was fantastic but he turned out to be a complete misfit as the CEO,” she rues. Eventually, Ocimum had to “sell part of the business to another US company and move some of the assets to India in a bid to minimise the losses and continue”.

About the same time, Acharya felt the nagging urge to do something in the field of “personalised medicine”. But she was still the founder and CEO of Ocimum. She confided in a board member, who told her to follow her heart. She did, handing over the reins of the company to her husband, and launched Mapmygenome in 2013 “with a few people from Ocimum”.

It was the right move, in retrospect. The global genomics market, valued at $13.4 billion in 2019 by market research firm Valuates Reports, is projected to touch $27.8 billion by 2026 on the back of a rise in preference for personalised medicine and partnerships between research institutes and companies. There are already several prominent global companies in this space, such as Thermo Fisher Scientific, Agilent Technologies, BGI Group, GE Healthcare and 23andMe, Inc.. Competition within India too is lining up: from firms like Mahajan Imaging, Premas Life Sciences, NuGenomics and Strand Life Sciences.

Nevertheless, Mapmygenome has grown slowly and steadily—with very little external funding, she emphasises. “We have raised less than $3 million till date, with the last round sometime in 2016.... Of course, over a period of time, our journey has changed quite a bit,” Acharya says. Apart from introducing genetic counselling, the company has added clinical genomics—the study of clinical outcomes with genomic data—to its portfolio. It currently claims to have “about a million customers but these include a lot of people who also came for the covid tests”. Indeed, the pandemic that wreaked havoc undoubtedly fuelled their business, especially when they opened up a testing lab at the Hyderabad airport in 2020.

“Initially, we got very few samples and felt it would not be a viable model due to the lockdowns and skeletal flights. But things changed rapidly and we had to quickly scale up to run a 24-hour centre,” Acharya recalls. Putting out the test results in four-six hours was challenging because Mapmygenome was only allowed to take the sample; it had to send it to the state government lab for testing. Eventually, they were permitted to “do the testing in our own lab”, and that speeded up things. “At one point of time, we were testing 5,000-6,000 samples,” recalls Acharya. The growth kept “us very busy. Since June 2020, we have not shut down our office even for a single day—not even on a Saturday or Sunday”.

Now that a semblance of normalcy is returning, will it impact growth? I ask. Acharya acknowledges that it may, reeling off the numbers. “Last year, we garnered around 115 crore in revenue largely due to the spike in covid-19 tests. This year our revenue will drop but we are still expecting to touch 80-100 crore. We plan to raise about $15-25 million soon to serve our expansion plans, and are targeting about $100 million in revenue by 2027,” she says. The future beckons.

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