Banking on stem cells

India's first private cord blood banking company is all set to set up shop to market stem cells, says Asia Cryo Cell vice chairman and CEO Abhaya Kumar. Venkatachari Jagannathan interviews the entrepreneur extraordinaire.

Chennai: It was a new arrival in the family that actually led to the birth of Asia Cryo Cell Private Limited, muses Abhaya Kumar, vice chairman and CEO. "I was in the US when I received news of the impending arrival of our first grandchild. Around the same time, I heard for the first time from a friend about umbilical cord blood stem cell banking. As this facility was not available in India, I got in touch with Cryo Cell International in the US." He soon sewed up a 20-year technical collaboration to float India's first private cord blood banking company.

Cord blood is the remaining blood in the new born's umbilical cord and the placenta (the part of the ovary, which during pregnancy nourishes the foetus. The blood is filled with stem cells – the master cells responsible for the production of all other cells in the body – that have the ability to regenerate into other cells in the body. Normally, stem cells are found in bone marrow.

So what is cord blood banking? It is similar to a blood bank. At the time of a child's birth the cord blood is collected and taken to the cord blood bank for processing to harvest stem cells. The stem cells are preserved cryogenically (normally for 20 years) for potential medical use in the future – the medical equivalent of life insurance.

A chemical engineer, Kumar is also the joint managing director of the Rs318-crore Shasun Chemicals and Drugs Limited. Shasun is the world's largest producer of Ibuprofen and the second largest manufacturer of Ranitidine. Kumar was among the finalists of Ernst & Young's entrepreneur award in the year 2003.

According to Kumar, the total investment in building the infrastructure is around Rs14 crore. The company is also heavily investing in brand building activities. "We expect to break even before March 2006," he says. Marketing the services under the brand LifeCell, Asia Cryo Cell has close to 1,000 customers and the number is increasing, Kumar claims.