'With the ongoing pandemic, we are seeing rising health awareness among the general populace. Within the healthcare industry, there is now a growing slant towards genomics.'
During the complete lockdown last year, the diagnostic industry was confronted with various challenges. During the first wave under complete lockdown, one of the biggest challenges was the timely availability of lab reagents. As the numbers of domestic and international flights were drastically reduced, there was a serious constraint on logistics. As most of the lab reagents and kits are of international origin, transportation of kits was a challenge. COVID-19 has generated a dual impact on the diagnostics industry. On the one hand, it has raised awareness about the importance of such tests. People now know that diagnostics are essential in understanding the underlying condition. On the other hand, the flip side of the pandemic is that some patients now avoid going for any screening which is not mandatory. But overall, the outlook towards diagnostics has improved. So, labs dealing with COVID tests have seen a sudden peak in the business, while others in routine tests have seen a fall in numbers. Going forward, we expect more people to opt for their health and wellness checks. In an exclusive conversation with the Financial Express Online Subhamoy Dastidar, Co-Founder and Director, Lilac Insights talked about the impact of pandemic on diagnostics, challenges, trends and more. Excerpts:
Has COVID-19 impacted the outlook of patients opting for diagnostic services?
COVID-19 has generated a dual impact on the diagnostics industry. On the one hand, it has raised awareness about the importance of such tests. People now know that diagnostics are essential in understanding the underlying condition. On the other hand, the flip side of the pandemic is that some patients now avoid going for any screening which is not mandatory. But overall, the outlook towards diagnostics has improved. So labs dealing with COVID tests have seen a sudden peak in the business, while others in routine tests have seen a fall in numbers. Going forward, we expect more people to opt for their health and wellness checks.
What are the challenges industry and your firm has faced due to COVID-19?
During the complete lockdown last year, we were confronted with few challenges. During the first wave under complete lockdown, one of our biggest challenges was that of timely availability of lab reagents. As the numbers of domestic and international flights were drastically reduced, there was a serious constraint on logistics. As most of the lab reagents and kits are of international origin, transportation of kits was a challenge.
Another significant challenge that we faced was that of transportation of samples from various hospitals in cities and towns across the hospital to our laboratory. As most of the tests that we conduct are very essential, and require the earliest processing and reporting so that the clinician can take the next step. Under complete lockdown conditions, with districts and state borders being sealed, it was quite a challenge that our logistic team had to face to ensure that the samples are picked up in time from the hospitals and delivered to the lab.
There was also a daunting challenge of keeping the lab up and running during the pandemic times. On one hand ensuring, staff are able to reach the lab safely on a daily basis and on the other hand ensuring that each staff member is not affected by Covid and remains healthy. Maintaining strict protocol while ensuring the highest standard of service and quality of tests to patients was quite a bit of a challenge.
What are the trends in the genetic diagnostic industry?
With the ongoing pandemic, we are seeing rising health awareness among the general populace. Within the healthcare industry, there is now a growing slant towards genomics. In many health conditions, there is a growing dependence on genetic and genomic information, where clinicians are relying on genomic based reports to decide on the treatment of the patient. Super specialties like Cancer specialists, Fetal Medicine specialists, Neurologists, Cardiologists, Nephrologists and others are often recommending genetic tests for their patients to decide on treatment modalities. Globally we can see increased interest in personalised genomics. Today Genomics can provide us with personalized health information of individual patients or consumers. This knowledge can be utilised to manage health disorders, including chronic conditions like diabetes and obesity. The other reason for the rising prominence of genomics is the improved robustness of bioinformatics today. As our understanding of genomics improves, the testing and screening technology has also developed at lightning pace, giving us highly accurate results.
Another trend we see is the rising demand for wellness products. As people become more conscious, they want to exercise greater control over their health outcomes. This means a greater demand for information that can help them make informed decisions. This is where genomic testing comes in. The diagnostic industry will naturally want to ride this wave to help people understand their own genetic makeup and wellbeing.
Please provide a brief on the journey of Lilac Insights.
It was founded by three 1st generation entrepreneurs in 2011. Myself with Rakesh Sharma and Gulshan Bakhtiani established Lilac Insights as one of India’s leading Genetic Diagnostic Testing Companies. Lilac Insights was founded with a clear vision to reach out to doctors, clinicians, and patients to provide them advanced evidence-based, genomic testing services and solutions in areas like pregnancy, newborn health, infertility, cancer, and other important and allied diseases.
Between 2011 to 2013, Lilac Insights launched India’s 1st evidence-based prenatal screening programme and its very own Prenatal Biochemistry Facility based on FMF (UK) guidelines. After receiving an overwhelming acceptance for the prenatal screening programme from doctors and medical experts, we started a fully equipped in-house cytogenetics testing facility and expanded our presence pan-India.
In 2014, we started a fully equipped satellite centre in Chandigarh in order to help more patients and doctors across northern India. Similarly in 2016, we replicated this in Bengaluru city to cater to more people in the south of India. In 2015, we further expanded our service portfolio by starting our Molecular Genetics with Microarray and Genetic Counseling facilities.
In 2017, having established ourselves in the Reproductive Genetic testing space, we started our Cancer Genetics division from a 12000 sq.ft. State-of-the-art genetic testing facility in Mumbai.
Between 2018 and now, we have expanded our offerings in the field of genetic testing and have transformed into a one-stop solution provider for all genetic testing needs. We have also just inaugurated another satellite centre in Kolkata so that we can serve patients and doctors in the east of India more effectively. Further on, we have also acquired a dedicated Cytogenetics and Molecular Genetics facility with more than 8,000 sq. ft. of space in Bengaluru. And the milestone we are most proud of today is that we have tested over 6,50,000 patient samples cumulatively.
What are the services provided by Lilac Insights?
The field of genetics is poised to transform modern medicine. With more money and resources being diverted towards understanding genetics, the way we understand and cure diseases will undergo a significant transformation in the years to come. Genetics is a vast field that encompasses many sub-specialities; at Lilac Insights we have tried our best to cover the most important and cutting-edge areas.
Our services are broadly categorized into:
Our Reproductive Genetics Programme adheres to the strictest guidelines & protocols that are laid down by the Fetal Medicine Foundation, UK (FMF) for prenatal & postnatal health care. Under this programme, we offer diagnostic tests that include Prenatal Screening, Non-Invasive Prenatal Tests (NIPT/NIPS), Blood Karyotyping, Chromosomal Microarray Solutions, Clinical Cytogenetics, Molecular Genetics, Thalassemia screening, and Next Gen Gene Sequencing. We are amongst the first companies in India to offer Non-invasive chromosomal screening (NICS) for IVF specialists.
Through our Cancer Genetics Programme, clinicians can develop more customised treatment plans that can be most effective for an individual patient. Cancers interact differently in each patient depending on their genetic makeup, the genetics programme thus helps understand whether a particular cancer will be responsive to chemotherapy or radiation or will require more extensive surgery.
The Sujanan Program was started in 2019. It is a one-of-a-kind clinical and metabolic genetics facility in Pune with an aim to help achieve an end-to-end solution. It is India’s only privately run programme to have such a comprehensive team helping clinicians and patients from the diagnosis stage right up to management of an illness.
What are the challenges you have faced in your journey as an organization?
We faced quite a few challenges when we were starting out. Since we were new, Physicians did not recognize us and neither did the paying customers. Also, as we started boot strapped, we did not have much funds to create awareness of our tests to the clinicians and patients. However, through sheer perseverance towards stringent quality control, we started making a mark within the speciality clinicians circle. From the beginning, we stressed on standardisation of our tests. In the absence of any defined domestic guidelines, we decided to follow international standards. Over time, we gained a leading position in genomic diagnostics in India. Since then, other entrants have appeared but we were able to maintain the advantage of being a proven leader with a demonstrable track record of excellence and reliability which empowers the clinicians and patients to make confident decisions.
But there are still certain ongoing challenges. Genomic testing requires cutting-edge technology and tools. This means steep costs for certain tests, which can be a barrier. We often find ourselves educating people on genomic testing and the importance of standardisation.
What is the differentiator that sets Lilac Insights apart from the industry?
Our focus on standardisation coupled with cutting-edge diagnostic tech has given us a leading position in the market. We were among the first diagnostics labs that introduced global peer-based protocols in genetic testing in India. But what sets us apart is our customer focus. Unlike other diagnostic services, we don’t think our job is finished the moment we hand over a report to a customer. Instead, we offer complete care and support, including genetic counseling. We are further improving our report generation process through add-on services, such as helping patients understand their reports in a simple way and ensuring optimal standards so that doctors can make informed decisions.
What is the market size of genetic diagnostics in India? What has been the growth of Lilac Insights in the last five years?
According to some estimates, the molecular diagnostics market in India stood at USD 920 million in FY 2020 with a projected CAGR of around 10% by FY 2026. Most of this growth will come from fetal and chronic diseases diagnostics. At Lilac Insights Pvt. Ltd., we have seen a robust growth of 42% CAGR.
Growth plans for Lilac Insights going forward?
Our aim is to be recognised as the leading authority in the field of genomics and genetics. We see genomics as the internet of the coming decade. 20 years ago, we had little idea of the internet’s potential. Today, the internet has become so necessary to daily life that we cannot imagine living without it. Genomics will see a similar peak in the next decade as it becomes an essential part of healthcare management. At Lilac we want to be at the forefront of this journey by developing cutting-edge products and investing in R&D. Currently, genomic screening is most prevalent in oncology and pregnancy management. However going forward, it will gain more and more ground in general health and wellness management. With greater consumer awareness, we see this industry moving from B2B services towards the B2C segment.