cover story

VOXELGRIDS INNOVATIONS

Scan plan

The MRI machines of Voxelgrids Innovations have the potential to break through barriers in affordability, quality and deployment

Ours was an expensive idea on paper. Then I met Manoj Kumar [the chief executive of Social Alpha] in 2016 and he immediately said he would support us.” The ‘expensive idea’ that Arjun Arunachalam, founder and head of the startup, Voxelgrids Innovations, refers to is a high-quality Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine.

Voxelgrids received its first monetary and incubatory help from Social Alpha and it hasn’t looked back since. “We were literally incubated in Manoj’s apartment in Bengaluru,” says Mr Arunachalam. “They funded us for everything right from day one, whether it was space to work in, salaries for our people, expenses for buying things as well as network and software support.”

It’s the sort of backing that comes naturally to Social Alpha, which made Voxelgrids part of its entrepreneur-in-residence programme. In 2016, when Mr Arunachalam and his five-member team came under Social Alpha’s wing, Voxelgrids had not even been founded. At that point they operated much like Social Alpha employees, working to lay the foundation for the future.

When Voxelgrids was formed a year later it received a large grant from the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), a nonprofit set up by the Indian government’s Department of Biotechnology to enable emerging biotech enterprises to undertake research and innovation that addresses nationally-relevant product development needs.

Voxelgrids’ MRI machine can deliver high-quality images at a cheaper price

Backing from BIRAC meant that Voxelgrids could begin paying Social Alpha for its incubatory support, which had translated into the startup being able to build its team, to find and hire people for the varied functions so essential for an enterprise with big dreams and ambitions.

Voxelgrids’ MRI machines hold the promise of revolutionising the diagnostics space. They are lightweight (2-3 tonnes, as opposed to traditional machines, which may weigh up to 6 tonnes), can be placed in the back of a truck and transported and set up in the remotest of centres. That translates, particularly, into serving the needs of India’s rural regions, notoriously lacking in adequate testing facilities.

The scanners can be de-energised and re-energised — switched on and off, to put it simply — and they don’t need the expensive liquid cryogenics that regular MRI machines rely on. The Voxelgrids machines use a dry magnet that makes them lighter and more portable.

These machines consume 50% less power, adds Mr Arunachalam, and can withstand erratic supply and voltage fluctuations, as also heat, dust and changes in temperature, issues that typically plague village healthcare centres. “If there is a sudden loss of power, the system has 12 to 18 hours to auto-recover data,” says Mr Arunachalam.

Speed for the need

The machines can produce reports four times faster than other scanners and they offer full-body imaging, which increases the scope of diagnoses. “You have machines that scan only the knee or the brain,” explains Mr Arunachalam. “Here we’re talking about an MRI machine that can scan the full body or any specific part.”

The Voxelgrids machines are currently being clinically tested and should be ready for launch by end-2022. “We hope to set the cost at about half the price of the standard MRI machine, which usually comes to about 50 million and racks up operational expenses of anywhere between 20,000 and 40,000 a month,” says Mr Arunachalam. “Our scanner will cost a lot less.”

The time is ripe for Voxelgrids to make its machine play. “It’s been a while since MRI machines saw effective upgrades,” says Mr Arunachalam. “With all other imaging modalities, like CT scanners or x-ray machines, there have been tremendous innovations in making them more affordable and accessible. Despite much talk, that transition has not yet happened with MRI machines. I think we have come closest to a solution.”

Mr Arunachalam is clear about what the Voxelgrids machines will accomplish. “Our primary motivation was to create a state-of-the-art apparatus that can perform all of the imaging people require, do it with very high quality, and yet have design innovations that can make the system cost effective.”

Such innovation could only have come from a startup stable, says Mr Arunachalam. He doesn’t expect established companies to take the risk and create a machine that would not — at least in the beginning — reap monetary benefits. Which is why Social Alpha’s initial all-encompassing assistance was vital for Voxelgrids.

Scan plan

Voxelgrids has recently received $5 million in funding from Zoho Corporation, the Indian multinational company. The early care his baby received was just as crucial, says Mr Arunachalam. “If Social Alpha had not taken care of all our early expenses in our first year, any seed money we received would have been burnt through paying for essentials.”

Images courtesy: Voxelgrids Innovations