Dr. Dhananjaya Dendukuri is the Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Achira Labs, a Bangalore-based start-up which is developing new technologies for medical diagnostic testing at the point-of-care. He obtained his B. Tech. in Chemical Engineering from IIT Madras in 1999 and won an Institute Blues (Bronze). He received his Masters Degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Toronto, and his PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was named one of the TOP 10 Innovators under the age of 35 by MIT Technology Review (also called TR35). His company has also received a prestigious grant from Grand Challenges Canada for its work on developing fabric weaving as a technology for point-of-care diagnostics. T5E caught up with Dhananjaya in his Bangalore based office.
How did you get into the field of microfluidics and what is it about? Could you tell us about the microfluidic chip that put you on the TR35?
My PhD work in micro-fluidics provided the background for what my company does. Micro-fluidics is a relatively new area- 15 to 20 years old in academia. Right now, the ideas in micro-fluidics are transitioning from academia to industry. A broad analogy is that micro-fluidics is where electronics was in the 1960s- in its early stages of maturity. I finished my PhD in 2007. I was very clear that I wanted to come back to India, because I always felt much more comfortable in India and believe that world class technology can be developed here. There are enough examples of Indians doing great technology development abroad, and though in the recent years India is becoming a destination for such activities, by and large technology development in India is in nascent stages. So that’s what drove me to come back and work here.
Microfluidics is basically miniaturised plumbing, and involves miniaturisation, integration and automation, on a chip. It has a lot of applications- one of them is diagnostics, in analytical chemistry and biology. In India, there is a specific need for affordable, rapid and multiplexed diagnostics with increased efficiency of diagnostic-delivery processes for greater accessibility by different target groups, especially the masses and rural areas. Currently, there aren’t enough portable instruments for field testing. We wanted to use that technology to address problems in the area of diagnostics, both in terms of technology and delivery.
When you get down to technical specifics- one challenge is making manufacturing cheap enough. Suppose we’re planning to do a panel of tests, can we take a small finger prick of blood and do all of them? Yes, that was our aim. Together the above two bring in economies of scale and better validation of diseases. We also wanted to do all these tests in 15 to 20 minutes. These were the big-picture reasons for getting into the field, which ultimately define our technology processes.
While we are also developing plastic microfluidic chips that are made using sophisticated manufacturing technology, one question was- can we find a locally available (manufactured and developed) technology that is scale-able, providing an integrated platform for these tests? Weaving – an art, craft and technology – was one such process that seemed to gel with our big picture. We got a grant from Grand Challenges Canada to build a chip which would be affordable and built or developed using locally available expertise. The process of manufacturing entailed using weavers (from Kancheepuram) to weave the chip. So some of our chips are actually woven fabric containing specific reagents. We exploit the weaving properties of textile to tune capillary flow. The cost of a chip is in paise (a 90% reduction on costs compared to conventional diagnostic chips). A lot of common simple tests can be done on our platform.
What are your thoughts about being on the TR35 list? How important do you feel these kind of awards are?
It feels great to be recognized in this fashion because the MIT TR35 awards have been won by some really pioneering people in the past. More personally, for me, it is a validation of my belief that technology development in India can encourage local expertise to build technologies. It certainly serves as encouragement and a mark of recognition not just for me but for the company and the people behind it too. However, I would also like to add that there are many such entrepreneurs out there who are doing equally good or better work, and such talent needs to be recognized to put India on the Technology Development map. Of course, the ultimate success of the company and technology will be decided in the market place.
You did your B. Tech. in chemical engineering. Could you tell us a bit about your stint in insti? How did you make your decisions about a Masters degree and PhD, what was the road from Chemical Engineering? What prompted you to choose microfluidics and diagnostics?
Well, in insti, I spent a lot of time doing things other than studying! When I look back I was casual about things then, and what college is supposed to be like. But I had an absolutely fantastic time meeting peers, made friends for life, participated in many extra-curricular activities – I started questioning a little too late into IIT what I was going to do next. My one piece of advice would be that everyone should be thinking about these things a little in advance, not in 7th or 8th semesters like me! Thinking about what to do next is important, but it’s more important to understand one’s motivations and inclinations, which should ideally be influenced during one’s stint in the insti, because ultimately innovation comes from doing what one is passionate about.
I drifted into a Masters degree. That is when I realised I actually liked engineering. I tutored for a lot of classes at University of Toronto, which was a great experience for me. Gradually, it dawned on me that I was inclined to do a PhD as I liked what I did – the science and the teaching. So I was lucky enough to be accepted for a PhD program at MIT. In MIT every undergrad has to take an intro class in biology- I took the course too. I hated biology in school (what I remember about it was learning the difference between monocotyledons and dicotyledons, vertebrates and invertebrates- the approach was mind-numbing). But that- just memorizing information- is not biology. I realised biology was interesting, like a story really. Biology is about generating hypotheses and learning to test them out and analyse them. The frontier of the century is biology, and that was an important input while starting my company. I am not a biologist, but I have tried to pick up some background in it to try to address some problems in the field. One nice thing about Chemical Engineering is that it takes a systems approach (analysing the input to a system, the output from it and the changes in between) to problems, and with some abstraction, that approach can be applied to other fields. That kind of approach has its value in human biology.
Academics in IITM did not inspire you as much as in your Masters and PhD?
I take a lot of blame for it, but somehow academics in IITM didn’t come together for me. A lot of this was because of the lack of deep questioning of what were my scientific inclinations.
I also believe Indians are genetically good teachers, but not enough of a research component came into our classes. Research provides a platform for inquisition and creativity and assists in identifying one’s likes and dislikes of a subject, especially for undergrads.
I was an average student. I saw a lot of really smart and amazing students, who left and moved to other careers- like banking and finance, and maybe with some inspiration during their stay here, some of them would have stayed in engineering. The contribution they could have made to engineering and science would have been immense.
This concludes Part 1 of the interview. In Part 2, Dr. Dhananjay talks more about his life at IIT and his ideas on entrepreneurship and research.