Geetha Manjunath | Niramai Health Analytix
Geetha Manjunath is the Founder and CEO of Niramai Health Analytix, a startup that’s building a novel solution for detecting early stage breast cancer using Machine Learning. Geetha carries over 25 years of research expertise in the IT industry and has proposed and led multiple research projects in Artificial intelligence, crowd sourcing, cloud computing, semantic web, mobile and distributed computing. Her research in the above areas has resulted in innovative prototypes, patents, publications, new products and some national and international recognition. Geetha’s specialty areas are diverse and straddle domains like Artificial intelligence, Machine learning, Computer Vision, Data Analytics, Big Data, Cloud Computing, Semantic Web, Mobility platforms, Web Middleware, Data Mining, Storage Virtualization, Compilers, Java Virtual Machine and others.
Niramai Health Analytix - the venture Geetha has chosen to birth after quitting a long and lucrative corporate career - has developed a novel breast cancer screening solution that uses Thermalytix, i.e. machine intelligence over thermography images. Their Cloud Hosted Analytics Solution uses big data analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms for early & accurate breast cancer screening. It is a non-contact privacy-aware breast cancer screening solution that detects early stage breast abnormalities.
Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in women today. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in every 12 women has the risk of a breast abnormality. Early diagnosis is very critical to decrease mortality rates. “Ironically, Breast cancer is also one of the easier amongst all cancers to solve, if it can be intercepted in time. And that is exactly what makes it a sad case for India, because we keep losing nearly a lac lives every year to the ailment. This is the area where we want to make a difference. We want to blend hi-end technologies and clinical systems with an empathy-first approach to make breast cancer easily detectable - not just for those in the ‘big cities’, so to speak, but across the length and breadth of the land : Across social and economic background, age and geography. There is no point of Healthcare unless it is accessible by one and all as a fundamental right, and this is the bedrock of belief upon which Niramai Health Analytics is founded”, says Geetha, capturing the essence of her endeavour with candid conviction.
Geetha continues to decode the details of her dream for us, one nut and bolt at a time: “We at Niramai have developed a novel software medical device to detect breast cancer at a much earlier stage than traditional methods or self-examination. Our solution is a low cost, accurate, automated, portable cancer screening tool that can be operated in any clinic. Unlike mammography, our imaging method is radiation free, non-touch, not painful and works for women of all ages. The core technology of our solution has been developed using our patented Artificial Intelligence (AI)/Machine Learning (ML) algorithms for reliable and accurate detection of breast cancer. This unique solution can be used as a cancer diagnosis test in hospitals, for regular preventive health checkups, and also for large scale screening in rural and semi-urban areas.”
The current system of dealing with breast cancer, while reasonably efficacious, has its drawbacks. The common go-to solution is mammography which, while being effective, comes with an unwritten - and therefore usually ignored - caveat : That it works best only for women above the age of 45. There are other issues too - such as that of affordability, especially at the mass level. There is also an element of pain involved to it. Finally, investments in the machine makes this a CAPEX heavy business decision, greatly reducing business feasibility for small players, especially in Tier-2 and Tier-3 regions. These are all areas that are under Geetha’s scanner, and where her venture aims to take things to the next level. By enabling an accurate, accessible, affordable, painless and portable solution, the power of her big idea is all set to make break cancer detectable at the right stage by nearly everyone.
Two close members of the family - who Geetha lost to breast cancer - proved to be a turning point for this idea-first entrepreneur. It strengthened her resolve to do something to ‘correct’ the ground reality in the space, wrenching her away from the comfort of a cushy job that brought with it the security of a robust paycheque every month. It’s a leap of faith every entrepreneur has to take at one point of their life, and Geetha took hers gamely. Today, with every wind of change she engineers, that moment of courage is paying off handsomely.
Technologist at heart and philanthropist by nature, Geetha seems destined for the mission she is spearheading today. After all, she slips effortlessly into the role of a multifaceted leader - one who juggles a ‘larger than life’ vision with an eye for micro detail with passion and poise. She avers, “I feel really excited when I see technology solving a real, socially relevant problem, and am lucky that my team shares the same zeal. I am fired by the idea to leverage technology creatively to revolutionize breast cancer detection. Our overarching goal is to bring down the number of breast cancer related deaths to almost zero. The big question we are trying to answer is, “How can we democratize early detection of breast cancer?”
By the looks of it, she is enjoying every bit of her odyssey, one that is evolving her both personally and professionally. “The last 4 years of my start-up journey has been an eventful and rich growth curve. I picked up nearly double the amount of insights and learnings as compared to my long 25 year stint with leading multinational companies such as Hewlett Packard and Xerox. The best part? It has been a truly holistic growth experience, both vertically ground-up and across a wide horizontal range.”
Some of Geetha’s biggest realizations have been humbling eye-openers. After all, when you come out from the umbrella of a global brand, you are on your own. The reality changes from ‘who you represent’ to ‘who you are’. This ‘moment of truth’ - when one is stripped down to one’s barest identity and denomination - is one of the most liberating and edifying instances of life. In Geetha’s own words, “Being out on your own shows you the mirror. It makes you realize your true value, and what your skills and knowledge are truly worth to society. A lot of the time, it is not easy for the world to ‘figure you out rightaway’, so to speak, which is why stabilizing a startup takes time, courage and patience. This is when your self-belief and conviction in your idea must step forward and shine the brightest.”
Geetha - like all trueblue founders - enjoys wading into a rough sea, and is taking on the challenge of ‘converting the mindset’ of a community that habitually takes time to accept change. So what were the main roadblocks and potholes she has had to conquer along her journey?
Geetha is happy to elaborate for us, “The basic premise of the idea - cancer detection - is inherently complex and one which isn’t readily understood by the layman. This makes the business model risky. So our first challenge was to ensure that the startup stands on its own two feet with the support of funds, mentors and well-wishers. Thanks to a bunch of very seasoned and intelligent investors, we were able to raise money within 3 months, a very satisfying milestone in itself.
The second challenge was to get doctors to work with us. Here again, we had to break the typical mindset in the healthcare community of not taking a startup seriously. Of course, we were prepared and fine with that - we just wanted an opportunity to test and convince them that here is an idea that actually works. This is where I am deeply indebted to HCG, Narayana Hrudayalaya and BMS hospital who came forward and said, “Okay, I believe in the idea - let’s do this!” That marked an inflection point in our journey, giving us the opportunity to actually take the idea to-market and test its feasibility through real-life trials. It also positioned our product in open and direct ‘competition’, so to speak, with existing market solutions like mammography, biopsy and others. I am happy to say that we were happy when the outcomes came out positive, validating the belief and hard work the entire team had invested behind the idea.
Once we had won over the doctor community - we shifted our visor to the hospitals as the next step in our ongoing quest to arrive at an idea product-market fit that makes sense to everyone, starting with, of course, the patient.”
Geetha takes a moment to reflect on it all, turning introspective. “Making a venture work, especially when you see talented veterans in your field not able to take the sustained pressure and bite the dust, isn’t for the faint-hearted. More so as a woman leader, which means I have more barriers to cross and more glass ceilings - some of which are invisible. There is also the family to take care of. In fact, we had some of our own women leaders quit because of the rising odds. Thankfully, the initial phase of uncertainly seems to be in the past now and we now have a settled panel of weather-beaten leadership who are confidently taking the ship forward. So yes, you could say that we are taking one challenges one by one, travelling a journey where we have to experiment with various concepts and people, each of which will only keep making us stronger and wiser.”
Geetha Manjunath’s success story doesn’t just make for fascinating reading, but carries gems of wisdom for the next generation if they really lean-in and listen. “As an entrepreneur, we must stay agile everyday and be ready to correct course at short notice. Just like the saying goes - jumping off the cliff and building a plane on the way down. That pretty much sums up my typical ‘day in the life’. If you are an entrepreneur, make sure you are truly aligned to your true mission – both intellectually and emotionally. Figure out what that ONE thing is, that makes you really happy and warm inside, and truly proud of your achievements - when you shave away the temporary bells and whistles of success. As for me, I’m still looking forward to the big day when Niramai will truly be an international name, and a go-to solution for every woman in every region and mohallah when it comes to safeguarding their breast health and wellness.”
Geetha - and her work - will certainly be remembered by those whose lives she is changing for the better. So how would she like to be remembered? What would she want her legacy to be?
Like all selfless Do-Gooders, Geetha is spontaneous with her response: “It doesn’t matter even if no one remembers me. But I would certainly want my company Niramai - and the brave soldiers who are slogging day-in, day-out to make their dreams come true - to linger in the public consciousness : As an outfit that tried to engineer a measurable difference in the lives of women, especially those who lack support and guidance in society.”
There is the macro angle, too. “If we can play even a small role in making emerging trends like Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning a mainstream practice - and a ‘conversation point’ within the wellness professional community, we will be happy. I have an entire ecosystem of mentors, investors, partners, experts, evangelists and first-movers to thank from the bottom of my heart, for true change is never the handiwork of any individual, but an expression of an entire society’s courage and desire to make their lives better. We still have a long way to go”
“Make no mistakes. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is here to change the status quo of healthcare delivery irreversibly. My two cents to the esteemed VOH community would be to not treat technological change with skepticism. Instead, the default mode should be to embrace emerging ideas and new breakthroughs spontaneously. Once we open our minds to the ‘NEXT NORMAL’, so to speak, there’s no telling how far we can go as a community.”
*This story is published by VOH team*
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