Dr Nathan G. Congdon, an American professor at China's Zhongshan Ophthalmic Center, has mapped an alarming trend. Only one per cent of the Chinese population had diabetes in 1980; today, over 10 per cent is affected. The dramatic increase in the incidence of diabetes in the world's most populous country has created its own set of problems for ophthalmologists - diabetics need to get their eyes checked every year and doctors in rural China are not equipped to either diagnose or treat such patients.
Enter Forus Health, an Indian medical equipment start-up which has made eye imaging easy, portable and cheap. The Bangalore-based company has developed a slick retinal imaging device called 3nethra which works just as effectively as a traditional fundus camera - but at a fraction of the cost. Unlike fundus imaging, stores to sell in India. the Forus device does not need eye drops to dilate the eye because it uses infrared light the human eye cannot see.The 14-kg machine can auto-focus and remove the glare on its own. Images taken from the Forus device in rural hospitals can be uploaded on servers maintained by the company and then accessed by experts sitting at the Zhongshan Ophthalmic Centre for further investigation.
The three-in-one device does more than just retinal imaging: its slit lamp images the cornea, while the refractive meter measures any loss in vision. "The appeal of the Forus device is that its price is about a third of what we would normally pay for a fundus camera. It is quite a substantial difference and has allowed us to deploy 10 such devices in smaller hospitals in rural China which are connected to the Zhongshan Ophthalmic Center," Dr Congdon says in a telephone conversation. "Having the Forus device has allowed us to create a service for rural China that didn't exist previously."
Traditional fundus cameras cost Rs 14 lakh or more; the 3nethra is priced at Rs 5 lakh because of lower research and development expenses, and cheaper components. Not surprisingly, it has been a big success both in India and abroad. The first prototype was ready by mid-2011 and the company has already sold 125 devices in India and across 12 countries. "The device is a design innovation - beside the imaging system, there is a slit lamp and an auto refractive meter. No device has all these three together and we have still been able to maintain the size and compactness," says Shyam Vasudev Rao, President and Chief Technology Officer of Forus Health.
Will Forus Health be the rare made-in-India global success story in products? It may be too early for that, but the company has already stepped on the growth path with a cloud-based telemedicine service for which it charges hospitals Rs 20,000 a year. "The idea is to screen people, identify people with problems and send the images to a specialist," says Forus Health CEO K. Chandrasekhar, who co-founded Forus with Rao in January 2010.