Technology With Purpose: A Conversation Abhishek Sen
The Lemelson Foundation partners with Villgro to incubate innovations that improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in rural India, and support the social entrepreneurs behind these innovations. Abhishek Sen is one of the co-founders of the medical engineering and design firm Biosense Technologies, a company incubated by Villgro.
Sen is known for his pioneering work in point-of-care diagnostics, which are simple tests that can be administered at someone’s bedside. After noticing that most medical innovations catered to a western context, Sen and his partners founded Biosense to develop revolutionary diagnostics that are applicable in the uniquely complex environment of India.
LEMELSON FOUNDATION: What is Biosense Technologies and why did you and your partners decide to create it?
ABHISHEK SEN: We decided to start Biosense Technologies to address the gaps we saw in the biomedical technology industry – to bridge medicine, engineering, and industrial design in order to develop solutions applicable in India. We observed that, in a lot of places, the research and development in biomedical technology happens in western countries, so when those inventions are produced and manufactured, they are designed to be used in a western context which may or may not be applicable to an Indian context.
LEMELSON: So what do you do exactly? What kind of products have you created?
SEN: Biosense develops point-of-care diagnostics that are affordable, accurate, and applicable. The affordable aspect is really important in India given the large number of under-resourced people, which adds another layer of complexity. The technologies we develop have to be cool but also not cost a lot. There’s a very limited scope within which to play around. That’s where the innovative business model comes in – it has to be a confluence of innovative technology and business with a focus on design.
Right now we have three products in the market. uChek performs a wide variety of tests ranging from routine urine analysis to more specialized tests for ailments like kidney disease. SuCheck is a similar device that can be used to test blood sugar levels in a reliable and cost effective way. And ToucHB is a needle-free anemia screening tool designed to help the hundreds of thousands of women and children in the developing countries who die each year because of complications at birth, most of which are associated with anemia.
LEMELSON: You have come a long way since first starting Biosense. How has the support of Villgro and The Lemelson Foundation helped with this growth?
SEN: When we first started, we saw a problem and thought we had to do something about it. That was it. Villgro was instrumental in changing our mindset. The fact that we are even discussing business models and application today is because of Villgro. It’s not only “What product can we invent to address this issue?” but also “How can we get that invention in the hands of 100,000 healthcare workers?” and “How do we make sure they know how to use it?” That wasn’t a part of our thinking before we got the fellowship. We’re young – the average age of the team is probably 27 – so we rely on Villgro’s wisdom to help us bring our ideas to fruition.
The realities on the ground in India are very different from those in other parts of the world. You have problems with channels, with value propositions, and billing cycles. The environment demands a unique approach.
That’s where The Lemelson Foundation comes in, when you want to do something audacious. With their help we can say, despite local limitations, “Let’s invent something to solve at least a part of a problem.” We have space to figure issues out… to try and fail enough times for there to be success. The Lemelson Foundation invests in people who have audacious ideas, ideas that otherwise probably wouldn’t develop beyond that initial spark, and makes it possible for those ideas to mature into innovative and impactful products.
LEMELSON: What successes have you seen at Biosense and what’s next?
SEN: We have conducted about 100,000 tests in the last year, and we have about 1,000 installations in the field. We’re also working with government agencies slowly but steadily to ensure that we are approaching health issues in a holistic way.
What we really want to be is a disease management company. We want to get to the point that if someone has anemia, for example, we can be a catalyst for a cohesive system that diagnoses, treats, and monitors the disease at both an individual and a community level.
The issue of disease control in India is complex. It’s not just a health issue, but also a socioeconomic and behavioral one. Let’s take anemia as an example: 54 percent of females in India are anemic, and about two out of every five deaths during childbirth are related to anemia. There is also a tremendous morbidity problem since anemic women give birth to severely underweight children with cognitive deficiencies.
This is a huge problem. It creates a cycle of poor health. We develop products, like the TouchHB anemia screening tool, that make the process of healthcare accessible and easy. We’re seeing our devices used as part of a cohesive response system in India. There is a lot of progress that still needs to be made, but it’s exciting.
LEMELSON: Running Biosense is a lot of work. What keeps you motivated?
SEN: We’ve been blessed with a very good team, both in terms of the people within the company and our mentors. We can pick up the phone and give Villgro or Lemelson a call and explain an issue and they will help.
I also truly believe that technology can be used to impact the healthcare system in a very big way. I believe invention – in this case, where technology, medicine, and design come together – is necessary to create better technologies in a very complex system like India. And I am passionate about making healthcare accessible and affordable to people in India. It isn’t about money, it’s about making an impact. We’re also having a lot of fun.