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Asian startups: I see dead people—the story of iGene

Zafar Anjum | Dec. 19, 2013
Mathavan A. Chandran, 45, a Malaysian entrepreneur, has brought IT a little closer to the morbid frontier of death by pioneering a system of digital autopsy that is finding favour in far corners of the world.

He broadly worked in the area of bioinformatics. Chandran's company developed a number of prototypes. They offered services like computing to process the raw genomic data and run simulations to check whether molecules reacted against each other-these were crucial tests for pharma companies.

"We were lucky to have a sale using our prototype," he recalls. "We got this nice Ringgit 600,000 contract as biotech was becoming a major vertical in Malaysia and Singapore. We sold some of the solutions to Singapore's very large institutes too but unfortunately we can't name them."

As luck would have it, he bumped into an influential Malaysian bureaucrat at a conference who told him about a company in Switzerland that was trying to visualise human body with a view to solve forensic cases. A suggestion was made to him to do something similar in Malaysia as it could receive good traction in a progressive Islamic nation like Malaysia. At that time Malaysia was developing the Multimedia Super Corridor. The Swiss group was investing heavily in the hardware so there was an opportunity for a Malaysian company to focus on the software. Chandran smelled an opportunity.

When he discussed the concept with his team mates, he found one guy in his clinical group to be a forensic pathologist. He asked him to give him a full brief on medical forensics as Chandran hardly knew much in that area.

After a little more research, he put a two-man team to start on the mission of visualising the human body. In about 5-6 months, his team came up with a low definition visualisation of the human body (a raw data set from a scanner which is typically in a 2D grayscale but they were able to visualize in 3D colour). He felt very excited at this breakthrough. "It was a million times better than seeing the human body in an X-ray," he says gleefully. This was in 2003-2004.

Chandran hired more engineers to support the team that was working on digital autopsy solutions. Meanwhile, he kept doing some strategic consulting to keep the company afloat-after all, staff salaries had to be paid.

In 2005, they had a prototype ready that looked quite 'brilliant'. He made a presentation of his technology to a group of Malaysian government officials including those from the police, forensics and religious bodies. To say that his concept and technology was well-received would be an understatement.

"When we made that presentation, the reaction was unbelievable," Chandran says. "I have never seen people so genuinely impressed."

The next day the news of their breakthrough was plastered all over the local media.

Fueled by this warm reception by his own government, Chandran focused on the practical hindrances that impeded his technology's adoption. "We had a superb product but there was no infrastructure in place to support it," he says. "We decided to become a turn key contractor. We said we will provide next generation customer facility that allowed you to do autopsy without physical dissection of the deceased. Our pitch was why don't we build a little room next to your mortuary?"


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