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Water healers
Aquatic therapy is a burgeoning medical practice and Harsh Mariwala has caught on to it early, with AquaCentric

Krishna Gopalan

Each time Tarun takes a step, there is a round of applause. He is tired but does not give up. It is a routine undertaken six days a week and the progress has been slow but good enough to put a smile on his face.

Four years ago, he was at a bus stop in Mumbai’s Nana Chowk, when misfortune struck. The branch of a tree he was standing under broke and crashed on him. What took place right after remains a blur for Tarun, but he recollects bleeding profusely and the excruciating pain in his spine. Today, after surgery, he has had two rods supporting his back and his leg. He is living with spinal shock, a condition that accompanies a spinal cord injury. For someone who was once a footballer, it surely is frustrating. “It was just bad luck,” he says with a wry smile. 

Several rounds of treatment at a hospital helped, but the rigidity in his leg remained. That’s when a doctor recommended hydrotherapy and Tarun found AquaCentric. It has been a year now and he regularly makes his way from his central Mumbai home in Dadar to this centre in Andheri, a western suburb. Ask him what the big change has been and his face lights up. “Water has made me less afraid of walking on land. My posture too has improved,” he says.

Harsh Mariwala Founder, AquaCentricPositioned as a physiotherapy rehabilitation centre, AquaCentric is the brainchild of Harsh Mariwala, who founded Marico, the house of brands like Parachute and Saffola. The health and wellness industry is worth 850 billion in India, but water therapy has a negligible share in it, with major chunks grabbed by beauty care, nutritional care and fitness centres. It’s quite a different story overseas where aqua centres are a robust business. In his mind, a latent demand for this existed in India and it was time to invest.

Water baby

How the idea of AquaCentric struck Mariwala is a tale of serendipity. A fitness freak, he is at the gym four days a week. It was during one of his workout sessions that he started a conversation with Dr Amit Kohli, his physiotherapist. That was in 2016 and Kohli, who had the idea of an aqua-based physiotherapy chain in mind, turned to Mariwala for counsel. 

Dr Amit Kohli Co-founder, AquaCentricMariwala was smitten by the idea and decided to back it. The deal was that Kohli would be given a stake for which he did not have to put in any money. The investment was made by Sharrp Ventures, Mariwala’s family office. “I was interested when he said nobody in India was doing this at scale. Setting up things from scratch has always interested me and this was another opportunity,” says Mariwala. 

There was work to be done to understand how aqua centres in other parts of the world were run. With his wife and Kohli, they visited Switzerland, which houses an aqua training institute. They also went to Amsterdam,where they met a pool manufacturer. The final stop was the US, where he saw large, operational aqua centres measuring 5,000-12,000 sq ft, with the therapy understood, accepted and loved by people. “I was certain that there was an untapped opportunity in India,” says Mariwala. With AquaCentric, the attempt is to revolutionise an industry that is still at a rudimentary stage. 

Deepali Jain, who has been conducting aqua aerobics classes since 1999, operates via a business model where she rents pools. Today, she runs this programme across six to seven clubs in South Mumbai and has trained people to conduct sessions in clubs across Kolkata, Delhi and Pune. “80% of my clientele are in the 30-60 age group, with the others in the 60-70 bracket. We started with three students and have over 250 in Mumbai today,” she says. Jain charges 4,000-6,000 for 10-12 sessions a month.  

In his venture, Mariwala acts as investor and mentor, Kohli with his medical education is in charge of recruiting and training doctors, physiotherapists and dieticians. “Our USP is aquatic rehabilitation and for that, we have created four verticals — orthopaedics, neurology, paediatrics and women’s health,” says Kohli. Through these, AquaCentric helps with a range of conditions from joint replacements, fractures and ligament injuries to strokes, cerebral palsy and pregnancy. Kohli estimates that these affect 30-35% of India’s population.

The clientele is of varied ages. Tarun, all of 23 years, is among the youngest. CEO Nevil Kavarana recently had a 92-year-old man come in right after a knee surgery, to get back his walking rhythm. “Almost 45% of our clientele at the Andheri centre are 45-65 years of age. However, this demographic for our Worli centre is as high as 60%,” he says.

Kavarana believes it is important for people to feel good when they step in. “We cannot have a hospital-like atmosphere inside,” he says. To ensure that an upbeat mood is maintained, there are speakers in the middle of the pool area playing music that the clients want. One of the women, a Ranbir Kapoor fan, asks for Sadda Haq and it is promptly played. The place has an aroma that is informally called aqua fragrance by those who work here and clients (they are never referred to as patients) helped by qualified physiotherapists find their feet (or fins) in water. “The first notion we had to shatter was that swimming is compulsory to undergo aqua therapy. Today, a large proportion of the clients are those who have never been in water before,” he says.

Pricey business

As is evident, this is an expensive venture. So before diving in, AquaCentric has decided to test the waters by setting up just two centres in Mumbai, in Worli and Andheri. The size of the outlets depends on the potential market, composition of population and of course, the cost of real estate. The one in Andheri, which opened last July, occupies an area of 7,000 sq ft, while Worli, an area that is more upmarket, is a 5,000 sq ft outlet and less than a year old. Each centre employs 12-14 people.

Each centre involves a capex of 70-100 million, which goes into the cost of a medical gym, underwater equipment and therapeutic pools, for basic infrastructure. All this is supplemented by specialised equipment such as underwater motorised treadmills, resistance jets and adjustable toddler pool platforms for specially-abled children.

According to Mariwala, the size of each centre turned out to be slightly larger than what was planned. He estimates that billing to the tune of 2.5 million is needed to breakeven with the current operating expenses. On average, charges per session for a consultation are 1,500 and, for treatment, 2,000. On a usual day, the Andheri branch treats 60 clients and Worli, 25. The capex breakeven, if things go to plan, is close to three years. On the anvil, are centres in Powai and Thane.

By any yardstick, this is a new concept and people will take time to understand its benefits. The biggest advantage is the lightness of being. A body is 90% lighter inside water than on land, so there is greater ease to move around. 

Ali Irani, a well-known physiotherapist from Mumbai’s Nanavati Hospital, believes nothing works better than water to treat back pain or knee-related ailments. “The only available option today is a swimming pool but hygiene is always an issue,” he opines. Irani was the physiotherapist for the Indian cricket team and, to his mind, a session in the pool is preferred to a workout in a gym. Having travelled extensively with the team, Irani recalls how in more developed countries, hygiene was never a concern. “There is no doubt that aqua therapy has a place but it is important for doctors to recommend it.” That is, let an expert guide you to it. 

Doctors are certainly warming up to aqua therapy, going by what Kavarana says. At least some of them in Mumbai are now recommending it to their clients. Mariwala maintains there is no direct competition and that is where there is a chance to build their business. “We have to continue speaking to the doctors apart from word of mouth,” he says. Mariwala’s skill lies in identifying market opportunities early. He did that successfully with Parachute and its variants apart from Saffola’s strong association with cardio-health. This could be his next pool of fortune.

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