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Dr. Geetha Manjunath Tells Us How & Why Niramai Provides Unique, Radiation-Free Breast Cancer Screening

Meet Dr. Geetha Manjunath, Founder & CEO of Niramai, who believes, "Women are naturally team leaders and tend to take their team along."

“When women take care of their own health, they become their own best friend” – Maya Angelou.

On International Women’s Day, I bring you the journey of one woman who decided to change how women look after themselves, and prevent illness, by providing a technology solution right at their doorsteps! Truly, it is a concept resonant with this year’s theme of gender equality for a sustainable tomorrow – one where women have easy and equal access to healthcare. 

Meet Dr. Geetha Manjunath, CEO of Niramai Health Analytix, a Bengaluru based start-up that provides a unique non-invasive, radiation-free breast cancer screening using artificial intelligence.

Dr. Geetha Manjunath of Niramai, is a veteran with over 25 years of experience in IT Innovation with a Master’s degree and a Doctorate in AI and Data Mining from IISc. She was part of the Center for Development of Advanced Computing team that built India’s 1st SuperComputer in the 1990s. 

Subsequently, Dr. Geetha Manjunath had worked with Hewlett-Packard laboratories for over 17 years and with Xerox India before starting her venture at the age of 49! 

Niramai’s technology has revolutionized early-stage- detection of breast cancer where mortality rates are still very high in India. The price of preventive tests and the embarrassment involved in the process are key barriers preventing women from taking the first step towards breast cancer detection.

Dr. Geetha identified these critical challenges and built a technology that is both accessible and affordable. Today Dr. Geetha Manjunath’s Niramai is recognized across the world and has won several awards like, being featured in the World’s Top 100 AI Startup and Winner of National start-up award. Niramai’s technology has redefined cancer detection in India making it affordable & accessible to Indian women across segments.

I spoke to Dr. Geetha about her entrepreneurship journey with Niramai, learnings and experiences. 

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“The statistics on breast cancer deaths are shocking…” – Dr. Geetha Manjunath

Dr. Geetha Manjunath, how did the journey start for you?

A few years back, I heard the news that one of my cousins Bharati was diagnosed with breast cancer and she had just a few months to go. It was detected at a very late stage when the symptoms were very obvious. 

This impacted me a lot and I started reading about breast cancer. I was shocked when I came across statistics on the number of women dying from breast cancer every year.

While discussing this issue with a friend, the idea of using thermal imaging for cancer detection came up. So I began researching thermal imaging and existing cancer detection methods. I spent about 1.5 – 2yrs in research, added a few more researchers to my team and started building the business plan. 

I have worked with larger teams with 80 members- but building from scratch was a real challenge. So it is important to get team members who share your vision when you start.

I had approached two of my colleagues, Shiva & Himanshu when I decided to start my venture in breast cancer detection technology and they agreed to join. I remember telling them to wait for 3 months to raise funds for this venture and luckily, we (Dr. Geetha, Shiva & Himanshu) did it in the 1st month itself!

They are still with Niramai and it shows how my shared vision has helped me in the journey over the years. Also, the Tata Elxsi Incubation centre supported me, when we needed office space for the 5 member team. It has been a great journey building from there. 

Why is early detection of breast cancer so critical?

I understand that breast cancer screening is now made available at the safety of one’s own home across 19 cities in India – what a commendable achievement and very relevant for Indian women! Dr. Geetha, what are your thoughts on awareness and the need for early-stage detection of breast cancer?

Globally 680,000 women die from cancer every year, 90K only in India. 1 in 8 women in the US can get breast cancer, while in India, it is 1 in 25. 

But a mammography test costs Rs. 3500 and is a lot to spend every year. It works well only on women above 45 years because it doesn’t work on dense breasts. Hence finding white spots which are signs of lumps is not possible in younger aged women.

Mammography also uses radiation – when repeated every year, increases the chances of cancer. The US recommends mammography once in 2 years, the UK once in 3 years. 

But, the mean age for detection is 50 years in India. All the more reason why it is cause for concern and that early-stage detection can be very beneficial for proper treatment. 

Dr. Geetha Manjunath, could you tell me a little more about Nirmai’s technology?

With Niramai’s technology, we use thermal scanning to capture over 4 lakh temperature points per person to detect abnormalities. It generates a heat map where the temperature is converted into colour. We compare the historical data in the system, where 117 abnormal patterns are modelled and compared to derive the results. Also, thermal imaging captures data 27% more accurately than mammography – because sensitivity across dense breasts is high with thermal imaging.

Niramai’s technology was designed in making the tests both affordable and hence accessible. Our equipment cost is low, it is portable and can be carried in a backpack. The operational expense and training required for using the device are also minimal. So we can reach women in the comfort of their own homes. 

Starting a business at 49… is entirely doable & Dr. Geetha Manjunath’s journey is a proof!

Here I should add that Dr. Geetha Manjunath’s entrepreneurship story started when she was 49 years old and she entered the highly competitive startup ecosystem known more for its preponderance of millenials! She did her Engineering in the 80s, Doctorate in the 2000s and launched her startup in 2015. She has interacted with women across generations at work, witnessed their challenges as well as the opportunities opening up for them.

Dr. Geetha Manjunath, tell me something about your experience and what you recommend for experienced professionals wanting to turn entrepreneurs.

Age is just a number. It’s really about the mindset of being open to others’ ideas irrespective of where it is coming from and setting ego aside when you interact. It is also about being able to roll up the sleeves and get the job done.

For almost 20+ years I have been in the field of research – it is not a place where you cannot keep your mind open. 

The initial three months were difficult when starting your venture. I missed a few benefits, but it brought me to ground reality in many places. The impact of the brand that you represent was a brutal shock for me.

Once I had to wait for almost 6 hours to meet a Doctor because the response you get as an individual is very different from the brand you represent. Thankfully my ‘Doctorate’ was helpful in those initial days. And I am very glad Niramai is an established brand now.  

I have never asked investors for money. But my experience helped in securing funding, because investors knew I was serious about it and verified through connections like professors, managers, etc.

Me and my team managed to secured $1Mn in the 1st month of Niramai’s journey. Ultimately, it was fun to work on something which was a mission! 

Dr. Geetha Manjunath, what would you tell young women entering the workforce today?

If a person wants to solve a problem, especially a woman- the first hurdle is these questions that come up in their mind “Can I do this? I don’t know this. Forget that thought and jump into it. Don’t let the “I don’t know” become a hurdle, it may affect your confidence! You will eventually learn and figure it out.

I started attending International cancer conferences as networking in the Healthcare domain is very important. In the first year, I couldn’t figure out or talk about the terms used and made notes during the session. But I eventually learnt every aspect and enjoyed the whole learning experience.  

“Don’t let your gender stop you!” – Dr. Geetha Manjunath

Secondly, it is important to forget gender when you are interacting with others- everything is within you. So don’t doubt yourself. If you are in a meeting room with 100 people and have a question, forget that you are a woman and just put your hand up to ask the question. 

Lastly, it is really fun to be a women entrepreneur cause women are naturally team leaders and tend to take their team along. We need more of them. 

Niramai stands for Non-Invasive Risk Assessment with Machine Intelligence and also means being free from illness in Sanskrit. Dr. Geetha Manjunath’s  Niramai is beyond a business venture as it is enabling many Indian women to beat breast cancer by timely detection.

Dr. Geetha Manjunath’s, Founder-CEO Niramai, parting words of wisdom are roadmap to success for me as well as every woman out there! 

“If you are committed to a bigger vision, bigger than yourself, it gives strength which you never imagined yourself. Power of commitment is not obvious – It is beyond what you can think!”

Image Source : From Dr. Geetha Manjunath’s album

 

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Aarthee Suriyakumar

Electrical engineer turned into Marketer. From heartland of Tamilnadu but almost Mumbaikaar. read more...

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