As with everything related to COVID-19 crisis, these unprecedented times have given rise to situations and events that would have otherwise been difficult to imagine.
Recently, Bengaluru-based AI healthcare startup SigTuple announced that two of its co-founders were stepping down. What is perhaps a first in the Indian startup ecosystem, two co-founders are leaving the journey midway after nearly five long years.
Which begs the question, is it imperative that the people who started on the journey together continue to be together till the end? We spoke to Tathagato Rai Dastidar, who has now taken over as the CEO, to find out the reasons behind this development.
Started in 2015 by Tathagato Rai Dastidar, Rohit Kumar Pandey, and Apurv Anand, SigTuple aimed to make healthcare diagnostic faster, cheaper, and more accurate through the use of AI.
In its endeavor to fulfill that mission, the startup has raised $40 million to date from investors, including Pi Ventures, Accel Partners, Chiratae Ventures, Flipkart Co-founder Binny Bansal, and Trifecta Capital among others.
Earlier, Rohit was the CEO of SigTuple and Apurv was the CTO and COO.
Speaking to YourStory Founder and CEO Shradha Sharma, Tathagato said, “Losses are a part of life. When we start a journey with some companions, it is not necessary that we will have the same companions always. Losing a companion is sometimes debilitating. But one should not stray from the journey because of a loss.”
He also spoke about the way forward for the healthtech startup that was launched with the high ambition to automate the manual review of visual medical data using Artificial Intelligence.
According to Manish Singhal, Founding Partner, pi Ventures, “Digital pathology using AI is a critical disruption waiting to happen. Not only does it provide greater accuracy but also enables pathologists to work remotely. Its need will be felt even more in the coming years. SigTuple is in a unique position to make a difference in this space with its innovative products.”
Tathagato believes that the journey has just begun and they have a long way to go.
Excerpts from the interview.
Shradha Sharma: What prompted the decision for Rohit Kumar Pandey and Apurv Anand to leave the company midway?
Tathagato Rai Dastidar: Starting up is difficult. It requires inspiration and courage. Running a startup is even more difficult. It takes its toll on the people who are running it. That toll increases as we try to do more and more.
In our case, we did achieve a lot. We not only developed cutting-edge technology for healthcare diagnostics which is nearing market readiness, we also did a vertical integration by opening up a diagnostic services wing which could take our technology to the market and also address some of the inherent problems of the diagnostics industry in India.
All this while, the work took its toll on us. It led to health issues and issues in our personal lives, which we kept pushing under the carpet. But after five long years, this reached a breaking point for Rohit and Apurv, both on their health and family fronts. It was no longer possible to continue in the same way that we had done. Thus, they had to take the extremely difficult decision of bidding farewell to SigTuple.
It was a shock to everyone in the know – the investors, stakeholders, and most of all, me. We had no choice but to accept it. All of us thank them from the bottom of our hearts for the visionary guidance they have given to the company till today.
It is never easy to replace a founder. It is not easy for us as well. But we had the fortune of having grown a strong leadership team at SigTuple, which can take independent charge of different things. I strongly believe that this leadership team, led by me, will be able to pick things up and take the company to greater heights.
Losses are a part of life. When we start a journey with some companions, it is not necessary that we will have the same companions always. Losing a companion is sometimes debilitating. But one should not stray from the journey because of a loss. I am confident that our leadership team believes the same and will carry on with the journey of SigTuple.
SS: Now that you are the CEO, does anything change for the company, or does it remain the same? What are the new things we can expect from the company and you?
TRD: As far as SigTuple as a tech company is concerned, nothing changes at all. Our vision, our goals remain exactly the same – to build AI-based solutions for diagnostic screening. As we slowly get back to normalcy, we will take up our product development effort with renewed vigour. We will continue working on taking the products that we have built so far to market. In addition, we are going to work on several new initiatives which we believe will be very relevant in the new world that we have around us.
We are financially stable to take us through this journey for a long time. We have a dedicated and motivated team which is well aligned with our product vision. There should be no looking back for the technology wing.
Our diagnostic services wing Humain Health was growing at a breakneck speed for more than a year. But when the COVID-19 situation hit us, the revenue stream from Humain Health came to a complete halt.
At the same time, the market scenario was such that raising growth capital to continue the momentum was impossible. So, we had to tighten our belts. We had to lengthen the runway. Live today to fight another day.
We closed down our centres outside of Bangalore and some in Bangalore. We are in the process of finding new homes for them. We also had to take the difficult decision to let go of people. Those team members have had to go through hardships in the prevailing situation. We have tried to help them as best as we could. But that is not enough. We owe them an unconditional and humble apology. I know that’s not enough too. This is probably the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur.
SS: So, this part of the SigTuple journey surely changes considering it is mostly being driven by market conditions? What has the company-building process meant to you?
TRD: Building SigTuple from scratch meant many things to me. First of all, it has been a journey of learning for me. I am sure that would be the case for Rohit and Apurv and for that matter anyone who has ever worked here. One particular learning that means the most to me is one of perseverance. That is to have an unwavering commitment to an end goal and keep at it even if things do not go right always. Building core tech is hard. Building what we do is even harder. We have made mistakes on the way. Sometimes we underestimated the complexity of a problem. But we have always kept at it. If we couldn’t solve it at once, we solved it layer by layer.
For me, SigTuple is also a story of team work. Not just with my co-founders, but with other team members. Nothing that we have today could have been achieved single-handedly. We could only do what we did because of teamwork. I am grateful to the entire SigTuple family, past and present, for being together in this journey with me.
Finally, the SigTuple journey was all about having a grand vision, and executing on that vision. We had the goal to transform healthcare with the use of technology and AI. This was not an easy vision, especially for three co-founders who were rank outsiders to the healthcare system. But we dared to dream and to run with that dream. That is what SigTuple has been about.
SS: Tell us how SigTuple is making healthcare affordable and accessible for all?
TRD: Making healthcare diagnostic faster, cheaper, and more accurate through the use of AI this has been our motto right from day one. In medical diagnostics, the visual inspection of data to arrive at a diagnosis by a doctor has several problems. It is manual, therefore error prone. Inter observer variability is abundant. It is also time consuming and, therefore, expensive. The question that we asked ourselves at the very beginning was: Can we automate this through the use of AI and computer vision?
We work on two fields of medicine currently – pathology and ophthalmology. In pathology, we automate the visual microscopic analysis of biological specimens. In ophthalmology, we automate the inspection of retinal scans to detect different diseases. We have a solution for automated analysis of blood, urine, semen. We are also getting into microbiology.
What this means on the ground is simple: Our automated smart microscope takes in a slide with the required biological specimen, converts it into digital images, then uses AI to analyse those images and come up with a report. The report is then sent to the reviewing pathologist.
Ninety nine percent of the work of the pathologist is already done by the AI. Not only that, since the AI doesn’t suffer from fatigue, it is very often more sensitive to picking up rare abnormalities than the human. This means better diagnosis for the patient. We have actually proven this multiple times in our clinical validations.
The doctor now need not be reporting from the lab. Which means, a lab in a small town can avail the expertise of an experienced doctor in a metro. No sample shipment is required. Results are obtained faster. Cost goes down. Manual fatigue goes down. Accuracy goes up.
We have done this for blood, urine, and semen. Now, we want to replicate this for other fields of pathology. The same applies to retinal image screening as well.
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