Weekly Startup Profiles > Cellworks Group Inc.

Drugs on the Tech Turf
When this couple saw the possibilities from merging their two fields of study, they didn't hesitate. The result a breakthrough technology that helps pharma companies in the drug discovery methods.

Quick Facts
Entrepreneur : Taher Abbasi, Dr. Shireen Vali
Age : 38
Company : Cellworks Group Inc.
Based in : Bangalore
Founded in : 2005
Industry : Healthcare / Pharma

Business Summary


Drug Discovery Technology Company

The Idea

Taher was a professional in the semiconductor design industry. His wife Shireen worked on oncology related research at the Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology. Ideas were bound to clash and meet. "We soon recognized close parallels in the way the semiconductor industry was doing design in the late 1980s with the prevalent drug discovery methodology," says Taher.

The common link, they found, between the multi-million transistors on a silicon chip and higher order of magnitude of proteins involved in human cellular physiology was representation and handling of this complexity. "We decided to create a human physiology equivalent in a computational system," says Taher. This in silico platform would be used along with mainstream approaches to provide a virtual experimental system. This system would be transparent and can be easily configured for various types of "what-if" analysis.

"It does not represent the full body, so it's not fool proof in that sense. But it is one big step forward and in the drug discovery process that cuts down a lot of time and costs," explains Taher.

With this idea in hand, in June 2005, they formed Cellworks Group Inc.

The Opportunity

The industry is too huge to worry about competition, the biggest challenge we face is to get companies to try out this new way of doing research, declares Taher.

And how exactly would companies stand to gain with this new approach? "Just to give perspective - it roughly takes around $1billion and 12 years to develop a drug from concept to product with high attrition seen in clinical trial phases due to late discovered side effects. Using the in silico virtual experimental system would enable reduction in drug discovery and research time," explains Taher.

The primary target market for this technology is the pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies globally doing new drug discovery. "The Indian market is mostly generic, so our focus market is mainly North America and Europe," he explains.

Of their four clients, two are in India and two are in the U.S. "The reason we decided to set base in India is because it is the right place for a multidisciplinary expertise, science is the strong point of Indians," explains Taher who previously lived and worked in Silicon Valley.

The Money

Getting started was relatively easy. The business was incubated for the first six months at Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology, where Shireen was a faculty member. "IBAB provided the space and infrastructure. Besides that, we put in about $20,000 (Rs. 8 lakhs) of our own money, which went mainly into computing resources, high-end servers, etc."

And with growth, they brought in the external investors. "By early 2007 we had a technology prototype ready for demonstration. Post that, the company closed the first round of funding of $1 million, which was an angel round consisting of individuals from USA, Europe, Malaysia and India."

The Team

Having a husband-wife team at the helm has it's own challenges. "Our offices are as geographically far away as possible within the building, maybe that was a subconscious decision to stay out of each other's hair," says Taher with a smile.

In fact, it was Shireen who headed the company in the first 12-18 months while Taher simply played the role of investor until then. But it wasn't easy getting her on board in the first place. "Getting the idea off the ground required some base level endorsement of this concept to convince Shireen,"says Taher. "This was obtained by pitching the idea to Dr. Fred Gorin, Faculty at University of California, Davis and Dr. Phyllis Gardner, ex Dean of Medical School, Stanford. Not only did Fred and Phyllis love the idea, they agreed to join the team in the role of technical and business advisor."

Also early on, two senior seasoned executives from the semiconductor industry Dr. Anand Anandkumar and Pradeep Fernandes joined the company's board and have been instrumental in providing strategic inputs and direction on the technology and business front. "Today, we are a team of 64," says Taher.

In a specialized research field, having the right people to back the project is crucial.

"The Cellworks advisors and collaborators have been a key differentiator for the company as that enabled the technology to get qualified and critiqued early on which is huge value-add. In fact, Fred is currently doing a drug design project where he is leveraging Cellworks technology," adds a beaming Taher.

The Company - today and tomorrow

When we moved out of the IBAB incubation facility, our team comprised seven members, today we are over 60. We are transitioning to our third office location in Whitefield which will enable us to grow up to 100+ employees along with a complete training infrastructure, says Taher.

And what about tomorrow? "On the business development front, the plan for 2008 is to develop sales channels in USA to engage with pharmaceutical customers in North America."

In a technology-driven field, it's always to be important to be on top of things. "Our plan is to go deeper into the current disease areas of focus and the emphasis will be on integration of blocks to make the predictive analysis more interesting. Example of this would be integration of oncology platform with skin and inflammation platform to look into skin cancer," explains Taher.

What keeps you awake at night?

Well nothing really keeps me awake at night. As a company culture we work hard through the day and encourage the whole team to maintain a work-life balance, says Taher. But surely, it can't be that simple? "This development work being so research intensive and cutting-edge, one ongoing worry and challenge is how to maintain the pace of this research along with the right work-life balance but at the same time deliver as per the restrictive timelines associated with industry," cedes Taher.

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