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Photograph by Harsha Vadlamani

Outstanding Women

The Genie
Never one to shy from exploring, Anu Acharya's uninhibited curiosity led her to pioneer status in the Indian genomics industry  

Madhuri Rao

 

 

The city of pearls, Hyderabad, has woken up to the cool breeze across the hills on a slow Monday morning. While some are struggling to recover from the weekend hangover, some are preparing themselves for the new week with renewed energy. For Anu Acharya, founder, Mapmygenome, who is always bubbling with zeal and enthusiasm, acting lazy is never the preferred alternative. She often juggles her business meetings and media interactions with cycling, swimming or spending time with her family, especially with her two little daughters. Among her long list of hobbies, swimming is her latest obsession. “I don’t see work and life as two separate entities. I enjoy what I do,” says Acharya. 

Changing streams
Acharya doesn’t find it difficult to manage multiple roles at the same time and that set her apart from her peers. Even at school, if she wasn’t seen in the library, one could probably spot her doing experiments in the physics lab or playing basketball. Though today Acharya identifies herself as an entrepreneur, she was drawn to physics during her childhood. She was born in Bikaner, but grew up in Kharagpur, West Bengal. As her father was a physics professor at IIT-Kharagpur, she lived on campus and dreamt of joining IIT. For Acharya, her father was her source of inspiration. She says, “I aspired to become a physicist like him and win the Nobel Prize.” 

After her graduation in physics at IIT, she went to Chicago to study further. Her father always encouraged her to dig deeper and learn everything with a wider perspective, and Acharya diligently followed his advice. “The idea was to be a path-breaker in whatever I did,” says Acharya. Thus when she realised that she would only be a mediocre physicist as she grew up, she started looking for more options.“It was a process of discovery for me, in terms of realising my strengths and weaknesses and capitalising on what I was best at” says Acharya. Eventually, she started working for a telecom start-up in the United States. As she was associated with the start-up since its inception, most of her entrepreneurial learning came from there. 

After gaining some business acumen, Acharya returned to India by the end of 1999, to start something of her own. She initially started a domain called ‘Bandwidth Bazaar’ where she wanted to trade bandwidth and ‘VoiceGram’ where she thought of combining voice and text in one for a mobile. Both companies had to be shut eventually, as they did not have committed people to make it big. “Entrepreneurship is not just about great ideas, it is about perseverance and dedication,” believes Acharya. 

But things changed after the millennium, and she started Ocimum Biosolutions in 2000 at Hyderabad along with her husband Subash Lingareddy. The company was a biotechnology product development and contract research organisation with focus on genomics, bioinformatics, computational biology and microarrays. But why genomics and bioinformatics after studying physics all her life? To this, she says, “I am always interested in learning new things and the sector was very interesting and completely new to India,” 

The launch of the company was planned in time with the completion of the Human Genome Project (HGP) in 2003. The HGP is an international scientific research project that determined the sequence of chemical base pairs, which make up the human DNA, identifying and mapping all genes of the human genome from both a physical and a functional standpoint. 

For the uninitiated, a genome is a collection of all the genetic material present in one organism. A rough draft of the project was available by June 2000. Since, most of their products were based on gene sequencing, until the HGP was completed, they could not do anything. Moreover, the company needed someone with deeper knowledge and the role was filled by Dr. Sujata Pammi, one of the co-founders of Ocimum Biosolutions. It was a time when human genome sequencing was about to be completed globally and thus it led them to become one of the pioneers in India. 

Exploring the unchartered
By 2012, the company had built a huge database on pharmaceutical drug usage. The data led Acharya to think about why people used so many drugs and she started to explore if that could be prevented. This led her to genomic databases, which is a cross-referenced collection of genetic information about one or more organisms and how it could help people prevent diseases. Furthermore, she discovered that while India accounts for 1/6th of the world population, its genome databases were not being computed. This led her to start Mapmygenome in the year 2013 in Hyderabad with her own savings. 

Since genomics was still in its nascent stages in India, Acharya faced a few initial challenges when she started Mapmygenome, one of which was finding homegrown talent. “We had to get a lot of talent from outside India,” says Acharya, This cost a lot of money too. Besides this, the regulation in the Indian constitution about genetics and the tests related to it were not very clear. To overcome this, Acharya looked at the regulation in place in other countries, and tried to abide by those rules, as the framework in India was not clear.

Above all, most people even today do not know the benefits of genomics and there lies her hardest challenge; reaching out to people. “Very few people know about genetics and it is very difficult to convince people about the importance of these tests. Sometimes even physicians are unable to explain the benefits of these tests,” says Acharya. In spite of all these things what kept her going was, “The fact that people come and tell me how the tests and preventive measures have helped them in lives keeps me going.”

Mapmygenome has a product called Genomepatri, which helps anybody to know their body better through genetic compositions. By knowing the genetic composition, or the gene sequence of an individual, one can understand the factors that lead to resilient behavior such as acute stress and trauma. For example, the Genomepatri test can help in fighting depression, addictions and mental health issues. As the genetic composition of each individual is different, each person has to make changes specific to their compositions to prevent or delay the onset of prevalent conditions such as diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular diseases. 

The start-up raised 7 crore through angel investors, Rajan Anandan and Arihant Patni in March 2015. Acharya says that she plans to expand, after raising series A funding, to Latin America, South-East Asia and the Gulf countries, besides extending services to top Indian cities through their partners. 

Lessons learnt
Acharya has come a long way due to her commitment to the task at hand. This was something she imbibed from her father who played a huge role in her life. She remembers how he taught her the value of labour. “He used to give the children small tasks at home like ironing for which he would reward us with money,” she reminisces. Her siblings never worked on any of those tasks until they were asked to, but she used to complete them so that she could buy little things that she desired with her own money. The money she earned was minimal, but she says the joy of buying things with her own money was incredible. 

Another valuable lesson Acharya got from her father was about taking decisions on her own. Once when she had solved a puzzle in a lucky draw competition, she got a message saying she had won a mixer through a coupon. Her father took her to the place to collect it. They had to pay a sum to get the mixer and when they came back and tested it, they found it was defective. Acharya recollects her father saying “I knew this was not worth the money; but if I didn’t get it, you would constantly be thinking about it and perhaps think that I’ll always be there to take decisions for you. I need you to understand that you are independent to take your own decisions.” She says that her father made sure that she doesn’t take decisions that are irreversible and eventually would regret.

Although her mother has been a great influence in her life, Acharya feels that she wasn’t given proper credit. Talking about gender biases, she says that although there is no difference between both genders, biases have become an integral part of the society today and it is upon women to stand up for themselves. “I think it is a question of saying or taking a pragmatic view and be able to change it, not just for oneself but for others as well. It is about questioning which battle to fight for, and then you can win the war,” she signs off.

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