Chennai-based LifeCell, the provider of preventive healthcare services for family wellness, is the world’s second-largest provider of umbilical cord stem cells. Founded in 2004, the company has technological collaboration with the US-based Cryo-Cell International—the world’s first private stem cell bank with over 25 years of experience. As many as 2 lakh Indian parents have chosen to trust their newborn’s umbilical cords to LifeCell through its umbilical cord banking service BabyCord. The company has a 60% share in the Indian market. Stem cells are mother cells that have the potential to become any type of cell in the body. One of the main characteristics of stem cells is their ability to self-renew or multiply, while maintaining the potential to develop into other types of cells. These cells can repair and rebuild damaged tissue. The uses of stem cells are still being researched. In fact, stem cell tissues have proved effective in cancer treatment too. The applications have been steadily increasing in the last few years. They have been used for treating wound healing, including diabetic foot ulcers. In a country where concepts like bone marrow donations and stem cell banking are still not widely known, Mayur Abhaya, the CEO and managing director of the company, is betting on these treatments of the future.
The company is the most accredited stem cell bank in the country, with certifications from national and international organisations for standards. It is also the only player in the industry providing comprehensive stem cell solutions, including menstrual stem cell banking, R&D and point-of-care stem cell therapy for orthopaedic and vascular specialities. Mayur has been heading LifeCell since 2008. He comes from the family that set up Shasun Group of companies—the provider of contract pharmaceutical manufacturing services for global companies. Mayur studied biotechnology in India and the US, and then worked in the US for a year. Before moving to LifeCell, he worked for many years at Shasun Pharmaceuticals, where he led their new product development, intellectual property and licensing initiatives. In 2013, LifeCell International got an investment of Rs35 crore from Helion Venture Partners, an India-focused venture fund, to support its plans of increasing market penetration of stem cell banking in India and enabling the development of novel cell-based therapies.
Mayur says LifeCell currently operates in 150 cities, employing more than 1,500 people. “We have given an opportunity to our sales people to become their own bosses. They remain on company rolls and get to enjoy all the company benefit plans, such as insurance and welfare schemes. They grow with the company and also have the opportunity to explore and add non-conflicting products or services to their distribution network and enhance their earnings. These internal franchisees bring 50% of our revenue and it is growing. More than 50 such entrepreneurs have been created.” LifeCell recently bought over the stake held by Helion Ventures with borrowings from family-owned firms. Three months ago, it changed its business model. “We are introducing an on-demand model for sharing cord blood cells,” Mayur says. Parents can let the company know if their babies’ cord blood cells can be used for other needy patients. Cancer patients cannot be treated with their own stem cells. Patients usually do not have much time. Cord cells can be used even if all the six parameters that are required to transplant tissues do not match. By letting their stem cells be used by others, parents and their children get access to cord blood cells—of the entire cord blood cell bank—when they are in need. So far, stem cells were banked only for the baby from whom these were removed.
“Our inventory will come to the aid of people who do not have babies. We will refund the amount paid for having their baby’s stem cell stored. The processing fee is Rs17,000 and the storage fee each year is Rs4,000.” Mayur says that the world’s largest birthing country has a long way to go to create a viable stem cell bank. “We are going to follow the blood bank model and hope to bank 2,50,000 cords, which is the critical amount,” he adds. “We hope to contribute significantly to the ever-developing scope of transplant medicine. Currently, India is importing cord cells, which are prohibitively expensive. With scale, prices will come down in the country. Parents in India will have higher future access to stem cells than even those enjoyed by patients in advanced countries such as the US. We will have a linkage with global inventory.” Earlier this month, LifeCell was invited by AABB (formerly American Association of Blood Banks) to present the concept of ‘Community Stem Cell Banking’ at the 15th International Cord Blood Symposium held in San Diego, US. In 15 years, it is the only second stem cell bank to present its innovation at such a prestigious global platform.
With a turnover of Rs126 crore, LifeCell is operationally profitable. It has enough cash to run its business, but is yet to make net profits. However, Mayur believes very soon LifeCell will turn profitable, and that this year the number of stem cells brought into the labs will be higher by at least 30%. Mayur has extended LifeCell’s services to introduce and popularise the concept of essential preventive diagnostics for mothers and babies. BabyShield has been introduced to bring down infant mortality ratio. Addressing gaps in marketplace and with innovative business models, it has established market leadership in newborn screening. It has also acquired a prenatal screening service provider. “In India, only 2% babies go through prenatal and newborn screening. Nobody has focused on this. We will also be providing diagnostic medication. Doing this can prevent so many false positives. We are building all this together as a package and are offering it at an affordable price,” he says.