A vision for imaging

Written by Sushila Ravindranath | Sushila Ravindranath | Updated: Feb 21 2014, 05:51am hrs
Raju Venkataraman, managing director & CEO, Medall Healthcare Private Limited, is telling me that an ultra-sound test is the safest and cheapest diagnostic tool available, but there are not enough people available to do it. In India, only doctors and qualified professionals handle ultra-sound while most other countries train high-school graduates. This is one of the many frustrations the MD of Medall (Medicine for all) faces in his quest to provide premier healthcare services for the diagnostic and radiology imaging requirements of a diverse range of customers. Would the IT revolution have happened if the government had insisted that only computer engineers can work in the industry he asks.

I am meeting Raju for dinner at the Royal Vega restaurant at the ITC Grand Chola, which is next-doors from his office. He is a serial entrepreneur who lived the American dream but never lost sight of his desire to give back to his country. He started two companies in the BPO space, scaled them up and sold them. Now he is all charged up, providing affordable healthcare, particularly in tier-II to tier-VI cities. It is not a non-profit venture, he says. We have just been served rasam flavoured with cumin seeds and curry leaves. Royal Vega promises a luxurious vegetarian dining experience. It has a special thali which represents the six flavours of South Indian food. The next round has banana flower vadais and crispy fried okra in yogurt.

Raju graduated from IIT, Madras in 1981 in chemical engineering. He opted not to go the US to pursue further studies, unlike most of his peers did. After getting his MBA from IIM, Ahmedabad, he landed his dream job in Cadbury, recruited as a management trainee. This was when Cadbury was trying to enter the fruit drink market with its apple-based drink, Apela. He created a system for buying apples, which was a seasonal fruit. He learnt about milk distribution as Cadbury had a 1,000-cows farm for its milk needs. We needed more milk. In trying to source milk, I could see people setting up dairy farms and getting organised. I actually saw the White Revolution coming.

In 1985, Raju got a US Green Card through his sister living in the US and decided to move there. The prospect didnt really excite me. Cadbury had kept me busy. My career was taking off. However, I was disillusioned with the India of the 80s. I did not have a clear vision of where I will be in the next 20 years. I was scared of becoming a corporate junkie. I really had nothing to lose and was ready to try and learn something new, says Raju of the decision.

As soon as he landed in the US, he took up a job for minimum wages, then $3.65 per hour, in Sears Department Store, much to the horror of relations and friends. I sat at the sales counters and it gave me a great exposure to the mindsets of people. I met a professor at this time and helped him put together a small IT company. I learnt how to scale up from this experience, he says.

He had been applying for jobs and got an offer from EDS which was merging with General Motors. EDS retained its identity within GM and Raju got several breaks during his stint there. Initially, he was sent to Buffalo to the insurance division. Those were intense computer days, he reminisces. Soon he was shifted to Detroit. EDS could spot talent very quickly. In less than three weeks, they could see that I could conceive solutions, he says. He built their imaging business, set up an imaging lab, and a solutions centre.

EDS was trying to get a break-through to an Apple project which finally went to Accenture. Raju had asked the CTO of Apple to call him if Accenture could not implement the project. Apples CTO called him in eight months. Rajus insights into solutions helped EDS win many deals. However, he was beginning to feel that EDSs bonus policy was not working in favour of somebody like him. I realised I wont see my potential financially in EDS, he notes.

Raju set up a venture called Vetri Systems in 1991 with a capital of less than $10,000. He took advance against work. He started a subsidiary in India in 1993 to do back-office processing for healthcare insurance for some of the large insurance companies in the US. Seven years later, Raju sold the venture to Lason, a provider of document-management outsourcing services. By this time he had scaled it up to a 2,500employees, $26-million IT & BPO services organisation. Angel investors made a return of 12 times. Raju continued with the company for three more years. Shortly after that, he moved back to India, wanting to do something meaningful. He joined a non-governmental organisation, but soon realised that he was not cut out for that. Their lack of governance shook me up, he says.

The main course arrives with a variety of rice and lentil dishes and potato curry and brinjal in a tasty gravy. Raju begins talking about his second venture, RevITan anagram of Vetri, his firstlaunched in 2002. This was focussed on healthcare and high-end claims processing. He raised venture capital, scaled it to a 1,500-plus manpower organisation within 2 years and sold it to ICICI OneSource in 2005. He had delivered 84% IRR to investors.

Raju stayed with the company for four more years. Our vision was the same, he proffers as his reason for staying on with company. In these four years, the company grew to record a turnover of $400 million with 25,000 employees. It was a great experience. We opened offices in Ireland, Philippines and Argentina. The scale and speed of thinking was remarkable, he says.

In 2009, Raju decided to quit. I wanted to do something in rural India, something in healthcare. I travelled all over the South for six months before setting up Medall. I covered all the districts in the the states. I looked at affordability, accessibility, availability of technology and resources. He started Medall by acquiring Precision Diagnostics in Chennai in 2009.

Today, it has more than 120 diagnostic centres offering a comprehensive range of integrated diagnostic services including imaging and path lab services and more than 350 collection centres across the South. Medall serves 3.1 million customers annually and has expanded to Maharashtra. . We were awarded the Emerging Diagnostic Services Provider Company of the Year by Frost and Sullivan in the year 2011. We are the Largest Integrated Diagnostic Services Provider in the South and the fourth-largest diagnostic brand in India, according to industry sources, he says. The centres have state-of-the-art equipment and technology and have several quality certifications.

Rajus vision is to serve the entire population from the poorest of the poor to the urban rich. We offer preventive health check-ups to over 600 corporate and insurance clients along with wellness packages to general public. It is time we moved towards preventive care rather than cure. Most patients lack knowledge of critical parameters like BMI, HDL, he says outlining his third and ongoing venture.

What next, I ask him as we leave after having ended the luncheon with curd rice. May be, something in agriculture, he says.