Published on 27, November, 2018
Dr Aman Iqbal always knew that he wanted to be a biotech. When he completed his PhD in Chemical Biology at the University of Oxford, he was 24 and the youngest PhD in Chemistry from South Asia. Dr. Aman's passion for innovation and technology would soon lead him to become healthcare entrepreneur. In this interview, he talks about his work, his passion for data and AI and why he returned India to start an AI-driven healthcare company.
To begin with, please tell us a little bit about yourself in terms of your educational background and what attracted you towards innovation in healthcare? Was it something you have always wanted to do?
My journey about human evolution and biology started early at St Stephens College, DU where I studied chemistry. The summer internship at IISc Bangalore in biophysics planted the seeds of cross disciplinary scientific research and its impact on human health. I did my PhD in Chemical Biology from University Of Oxford working on antibiotics R&D in a lab headed by a PI in the same lineage as Sir Alexander Fleming. I ended up working on a number of new human genes and their role in human biology including drug discovery to identify chemical probes. I joined the structural genomics consortium (world’s largest post human genome public private R&D organization) as a team leader to continue my quest to hack human biology at the genetic level and learnt about epigenetics.
How did you choose to become healthcare entrepreneur?
I started my first start-up in the early days of Artificial Intelligence in drug discovery to establish a technology platform to develop personalized medicine using computational chemistry and biology reducing time to clinic for drugs. With a typical start-up journey that involved starting from a small office and lab where insulin was discovered, to failed grants and funding, co-founder quitting and other team issues, I stayed resilient in the face of all the odds keeping my eyes on the big picture and fighting fires, I grew my team carefully to involve some of the best people in the management team and global R&D labs for support. We developed and evolved our tech to generate data that won us awards including J&J’s grand prize and support, and funding support from seven major pharma companies and funding from a Silicon Valley and Ireland based VC group. Being one of the only three companies in the AI drug discovery support we grabbed a lot of attention amongst potential suitors eventually going through an early exit to an MNC pharma company that saw early value for the long term future of our tech and products.
What are the key lessons you learnt being a young healthcare entrepreneur?
In order to drive impactful innovation one has to merge various disciplines (tech, design and strategy) to find solutions to toughest of problems. Most importantly humanity’s effort of working in silos to find solutions for human health is taking us away from the core of the problem and that is humans themselves. We are complex species and everyone is different, if we use real time biological health data on each and every one and use technology to study patterns, we can address every human individually. It was this context that we started Vantage Enterprise to fund health technology companies. Earlier this year I returned India after being away for 14 years to lead series of healthcare initiatives with focus on diagnostics, data and AI.
You call yourself a ‘healthcare visionary’. Tell us about the vision you have that you think will majorly transform healthcare in India?
My vision for healthcare is to see a single unified healthcare model that can be adopted by any individual and not governments and countries. Healthcare in India is fragmented (too many stakeholders in silo), expensive for many (private-public divide in healthcare costs, unaccountable (margins on service, expensive and cumbersome insurance model) and most importantly reactive (guesswork and medication over use). For a country of 1.2 billion people, a singular unified model that offers preventive and personalized care to all has been talked about a lot but has not been delivered.
What are your plans with Vintage Health?
What Vantage health will be doing is to track human health by extracting biological data through genetics, epigenetics (saliva) and proteomics (blood) to train an AI doctor to use pattern recognition algorithms to track real-time health of humans and prescribe care on a personalized level. This will not only streamline primary healthcare practice, but allow the adoption of a single primary care healthcare model that is predictive Vs reactive and most importantly affordable.
You spoke about starting a diagnostic company to create a personalised health profile of Individuals. Studies show that with such interventions more avenues for data breach have opened up. How do you address the privacy risk and vulnerabilities associated with electronic health records?
This is a good question. There are clear data policies laid out by the government. Every health tech entrepreneur is wary of that and knows the basic tenets of accessing, storing and sharing personal health data. There are more than 50 health tech start-ups and many hospitals that are abiding by the policies to safeguard personal information when it comes to collecting and using personal health data. Raw data has to be stripped of personal information and then used for analysis and storage all within the jurisdiction. When it comes to mass analytics, no employer, insurance company or government should be able access personal information.
Tell us about the significant intervention that you think data, AI and machine learning can make when it comes to Healthcare innovation?
AI has already started to solve a lot of problems in the healthcare industry, from analysing EHRs, booking doctor appointments, to spotting cancers in radiology scans and to reducing insurance claims. Machine learning that uses enormous amounts of data for a problem set is able to identify patterns and learn from it to offer better product and services. Out of all this to me the most important intervention has been the early stage identification of various diseases such as cancer and TB. In a country with just over 3000+ radiologists, this technology can have a huge impact on preventive healthcare
Health start-ups have created a new market but at the same time many have failed to sustain. What drives your optimism towards establishing new healthcare venture in India?
I don’t quite agree that healthtech start-ups have failed to sustain. Yes, I do agree that they have not been able to scale as rapidly as they should have. If we empower, educate and lead from the front we will not just create a movement, an impact, but a change that will benefit every single person in this country, elsewhere.