Biopower pips Laser

By : |February 3, 2007 0

Pratima Harigunani

If you thought that love stories culminate only at aisles and lifelong-knots, here’s a couple with a fresh script. They met, fell in love, tied the knot and vowed for lifelong partnership like any other dove-deuce.

The story however, starts then. It takes off from the altar, steps into a laboratory and then enters the business corridors where life partners turn into business partners and give birth to their first offspring: Mindfarm Novatech.

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From Valentines to assembly lines

Bhushan Vishwanath met Mrinmayee, a microbiologist, when she, as a research student, was working on a protein synthesis study. The cupid hit and soon the couple got married.

It was that day when Vishwanath made clear that while he would be the breadwinner for the family, Mrinmayee would continue to invest her time in something that is of intellectual significance, and contributes something lasting to the world. In short, she would continue with her research and explore fresh horizons without time or other constraints.

Little did they know then, that a pursuit of mind could lead them into a new business territory altogether. Mrinmayee, who used her kitchen as a makeshift laboratory, embarked upon a thrilling idea while she was continuing her work on protein synthesis inhibitors. She hit upon a solution that can use plant-derived chemical for permanent follicle destruction, if applied according to the cyclical nature of hair-growth. After a series of checks like animal tests, toxicology studies and human tests, she materialized a tangible and much-cheaper alternative to the laser treatment for permanent hair-removal by using cytotoxic lectins – a well known group of molecules (commonly perceived to be dermally inactive) that can effect permanent follicle destruction with even negligible dermal absorption rates.

After receiving all the requisite certifications from National Toxicology Lab, Pune and FDA, the couple morphed their marriage into a new joint venture. With Mrinmayee as the head of research and Bhushan at the helm of the marketing and business activities, they have successfully incubated the cheaper, bio-alternative for laser, in the form of an herbal cream.

Milking the cream

Mrinmayee Bhushan, microbiologist and director, and Bhushan Vishwanath, director, Mindfarm Novatech, have clearly betted big on this venture with their personal savings to the tune of Rs 14-15 lakh been pumped in as investments in the last three years. Production is on with Jayant Agrochemicals in Bhuj and extraction of chemical has been supported with the tie-up of National Toxicology Centre.

On the market size, Vishwanath is bullish: “It’s a multi-billion market even by modest estimates. If we reckon the light hair removal market as per Gilette estimates, it works out to $2.7 billion. Laser costs around Rs 1.5 lakh per treatment with side effects, wounds, darkening and blistering possibilities. Electrolysis again is a highly skilled job. Domestic depilatory creams alone peg on an Rs 50 crore market and this excludes the non-working women segment that can blow it up to Rs 300 crore. Also, the pumice stone market is un-addressed till now. For the end consumer, this product can be manna if sold and marketed properly. Even a fraction of the global 16 billion can be a staggering market opportunity,” he says.

Black aura

No love story is devoid of villains, which in this case came in many forms: marketing challenges, capital deficits and the American black aura. “This product, despite having a huge potential market in the US, cannot enter there.

The reason: American paranoia for security.

Ricin, a group of Cyco Lectins has been detected as a part of some terrorist attempts and labeled as a weapon of mass destruction and bio-warfare. “Even botox can be lethal that way. But in the US, the cultivation of castor oil, a major source of the ingredients, is not allowed. Technologically, evil use of this chemical is not possible and that has been suggested even by US Naval Warfare. The chemical has also been reported and used for medical applications for cancer treatments,” argues Mrinmayee.

In fact, a glance in Wikipedia tells ricin*, as a bio-weapon, may be considered as not very powerful in comparison with other poisons such as botulinum or anthrax.

Nonetheless, the negative perception has harmed the prospects of the product so far as the company lost four big MNC deal interests, the moment they came to know that Ricin is a vital ingredient in the cream.

“Though we learnt that they too agree on a scientific basis, that it’s a wrong perception, but it’s a risk in the US market which they couldn’t afford to take,” shares Vishwanath. “While the proposition may be politically incorrect, VCs are still interested to fund it and say that it’s a worthwhile IP. Pockets of interest in Canada and Europe have shown favourable response. That’s why we have confidently moved to the next API (Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient) that varies in the degree of potency,” says Mrinmayee.

So far so good

Interestingly, it is not a virgin solution. Earlier, a scientist had tried a similar work on this molecule but stopped midway. The idea is definitely worthwhile and it is an IP that doesn’t happen everyday, feels Mrinmayee.

The US patent for the product is in advanced stages and another two are in provisional application stage.

The couple received good response at the World Ayurvedic Forum too. On the question of Ayurveda lineage, Mrinmayee explains, “There is no mention of the ingredients used by us in Ayurveda, but the method of application does find a hint there.”

The cream, meanwhile, has been claimed to deliver good response in Pune market with tangible non-recurring hair-removal effects in cyclical six to eight applications. “The results are indeed compelling,” she adds.

Future follicles

The second API is half-way through and would be expedited in next six months if the requisite funding comes along. “We are working on the second API of the same chemical group which is in advanced stages,” tells Mrinmayee. The molecule is being used in oncological application. Dozens of possibilities in x-ray, pumice stone, etc. are still a ripe field for future IPs, according to Mrinmayee’s research plans.

This entails sensitive markets like Haemophilia treatment, aphrodisiacs and much more. “There are many Ayurvedic concepts and formulations in their infancy. We want to convert them to proper APIs and formulae with volunteer studies,” she points out. Work on another potential channel with pastors is also on.

Love conquers all

With a love story brimmed with adventure and action, the brace is now bracing up for the market duel ahead and looking for suitors for their first baby (that is now out in the market as a herbal aloe vera hair removal cream at the price of Rs 320 per 40 gram). Lack of marketing and distribution expertise, is what they admit as a problem to overcome. They intend to find a suitable partner or a MNC that can take over the venture and lead it to its just fruition.

“We want to hand it over to someone who can exploit its full potential. I am sure there are many people who can improvise with multiple ideas,” feels Mrinmayee. While she is keen on making the IP realize its full research potential, Vishwanath is eager to make the product receive its fair share in the sun. Talks and negotiations are underway for bulk manufacturing or other possibilities and the possibility of a VC with around Rs two crore as first capital round would also help.

“Full scale manufacturing to the tune of 150 tonnes a year would need Rs one crore for the least,” Vishwanath adds.

While the pair is still brimming with romance for many more exciting research-based ventures ahead, it has well christened its first business scion as ‘Romantaque’. As for the road ahead, the couple has an open business plan and looking for a proper match for their brainchild. “The idea is not just money, but also a right fit that can take this IP to its logical conclusion,” iterates the couple. “We are exploring marketing tie-ups and VC fundings. Till then happens, we don’t mind walking, but don’t mind getting a lift on the way,” quips Vishwanath.

Anyone interested for this interesting hitchhike?

© CyberMedia News

*Source: Wikipedia (A military willing to use biological weapons and having advanced resources would rather use either of the latter instead. Ricin is easy to produce, but is not as practical nor likely to cause as high casualties as other agents. Ricin denatures (ie, the protein changes structure and becomes less dangerous) much more readily than anthrax spores, which may remain lethal for decades. Jan van Aken, an expert on biological weapons explained in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel that he judges it rather reassuring that Al Qaeda experimented with ricin as it suggests their inability to produce botulin or anthrax. Pure ricin could be dispersed through the air, but ozone, nitrogen oxides, and other pollutants would oxidize it within a few hours, rendering it harmless. Since it acts as an enzyme, catalyzing destruction of ribosomes, even a single oxidation is likely to render the ricin molecule harmless. Presumably it could be sealed inside some sort of dust particle that would dissolve in water, but this would be difficult.)

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