CryoBanks International is a part of the RJ Group. With a pan-India presence, it banks on providing superior technology for stem cell banking to its customers. Its CEO Dr CV Nerikar explains to Rajesh K Sharma, ENN about the growth of the sector
Please tell us about Cryobanks International
CryoBanks International is a pure cord blood bank that stores the cord blood cells of new born babies. Our positioning is very clear – we want to be the best in technology and services. These are our core areas. We bring the best technology in the world from countries like US and Switzerland.
We process the stem cells from the cord blood and store the cord linings. We operate in Singapore and Thailand as well, but see a huge potential in In- dia, because all the service providers combined are not even touching one percent of the market. With 26 million births happening every year, the mar- ket is not enough for even 100 more stem cell banks. Soon, treatment by stem cells will be a part of healthcare. We have more than 60,000 people who have banked with us. That means 60,000 people can be cured of diseases curable by stem cells as of now.
What are the states you have presence in?
We have a pan-India presence. We are present in 98 cities across the length and breadth of the country, from Kerala to Jammu and Kashmir and from Guwahati to Kutch. Location is not a criterion for us. But we dont go to re- mote villages, because it incurs a cost. Our service providers are present in any city with a population of 5-10 lakhs.
How do you reach out to prospective clients?
We spread awareness through brochures and websites. We offer reading material to expectant mothers who visit their gynaecologists in hospitals. It is not a tie up with hospitals; we talk to hospitals about what we want to do and distribute reading materials through them. Interested parents call us and our representative visits them and briefs them about our service. If convinced, they sign an agreement with us. We then track their delivery dates. On the due date, a paramedic collects the cord and brings to our facility for processing and storing.
How do you convince expectant parent of your services?
Till a few years ago, stem cells were going in the dustbin. We tell the parents to not throw it; it is too precious and should be stored because it can cure a lot of diseases.
Tell us about the technology used at Cryobanks.
Firstly, we use a technology known as Sepax for cord blood banking. Sepax is a FDA approved technology by a Swiss company Biosafe. It is a zero manual intervention technology where everything is controlled and the program protocols are as per international norms. It does not involve any human intervention so human error is eliminated. It harvests the maximum number of stem cells. While we collect the entire cord blood, only a small portion of it contains the stem cells. So we have to ensure maximum harvest rate. Most companies in India do it manually, which depends a lot on the technical prowess of an individual. It also depends on what you can visualize, because only the section of blood containing the stem cells, called the buffy coat, is to be harvested. But buffy coat itself forms about one percent of the total amount of blood. It all depends on how much your eyes will see and how much you will harvest. But Sepax uses optical sensors which can identify stem cell based population and harvest it. As a result, what I will harvest is the maximum possibility of stem cells. We are the only company in India that has moved in toto with Sepax. While other players use it in bits and pieces, we do it in totality. It comes at a cost, but when you consider that stem cells are going to be the future and be- lieve that this will make a difference to somebodys life tomorrow, it think it is too small a decision to make.
Another technology is an experimental technology for Mesenchymal stem cells, which are harvested either by using enzymes or by a technology that we use, called Explant technology. This technology, through a technology transfer arrangement with Da- Vinci Biosciences, involves practically zero manipulation of the cell while harvesting. We take the cells and put them in a growth medium which allows the growth of only Mesenchymal cells. There is no manual intervention and no enzymes or chemicals are added into it. Cells that are thus harvest are naturally less damaged. So, from a technology perspective, we have been offering two of the best technology in this line for our customers.
How receptive are parent to the idea of stem cell banking?
In the last six years, there has been a significant change. Six years ago, we used to start from scratch while explaining stem cell banking to our prospective clients. But now, at least in the metros, awareness has improved. Customers do know about stem cells, and look at what is better suited for them. But I wouldnt say it is up to the levels that we expect. In the smaller towns too it is picking up. Belief that stemcells will be the future is also slowly picking up. As successes happen, people will believe. People like us, the media and the doctors have a role to play in telling the customers about the benefits that stem cells can bring.
“We have a pan-India presence. We are present in 98 cities across the length and breadth of the country”
Is lack of more awareness holding back the growth of this sector?
Yes, it is holding it back significantly. The price of this product has dropped. It started at Rs 75,000 and through volumes and innovations, reducing our overall operation costs, we have been able to bring it down to Rs 45,000 over 21 years. It is not that big an amount for the common man today. For a parent, 4000 a month is not too much. Question is how beneficial it is. That awareness has to fully seep in. If somebody understands the benefit of stem cells and is properly briefed, I am sure there is a huge chance. I am sure if increased awareness had been there, this industry would have been much larger.
How much more time is needed for the smaller towns to pick up.
At least another decade. This is not a product with an immediate impact. This is a futuristic product; you store your stem cells for future use. The number of diseases that stem cells can cure is increasing. Nobody wants ill health in the family, but if cure comes out for diseases which are well known, like diabetes, then its awareness will increase. I am giving a figure of about a decade, because a lot of research is happening. Something or the other is bound to come out.
How has the government helped?
The government has created certain committees that govern the usage of stem cells. They have created rules and laws governing who can open and operate stem cell banks. There are certain guidelines about what is needed in a stem cell bank. The gov- ernment has done its bit to regularize this sector. Otherwise you would have had a lot of people doing this business without any recognition.
But there is always scope for more. Government can fund stem cell banking organizations or support them. At this juncture, all of these are nascent organizations. We need some sort of financial supporting, governmental support, make it more aware to people or acceptable to people. In other parts of the world, the government gives tax holidays to such organizations of does PPPs to support such organizations. The intent of creating stem cell banks is the finally these stem cell banks need to be used for people and cure people who have diseases. If we can sure these dis- ease, thats where the government and private sector can gel together.