Khilona Radia is a business consultant working with Medtech innovators and recognized as one of South Africa’s leading female biotechnology entrepreneurs. Dedicated to improving the lives of others through healthcare innovation, she is the founder of Antrum Biotech, which develops low-cost, rapid diagnostics to treat respiratory and infectious diseases. The company’s first innovation, IRISA™ TB, is a rapid test for extra-pulmonary tuberculosis, a leading cause of death in many parts of the world, including South Africa. Tuberculosis has killed over a billion people in the last 3 centuries and is far from eradicated; even today three people still die from TB every minute worldwide.
Khilona’s work in healthcare innovation and social impact investing has led her to share her experiences with many of the worlds leading global health organizations, including the World Health Organization, the STOP TB Partnership, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics. CAMTech had the privilege of meeting Khilona earlier this year when she visited Massachusetts General Hospital Global Health with a team of biotech innovators and entrepreneurs from the SanBio network in Sub-Saharan Africa. We asked her to share some of her knowledge, experience and advice with others working in the Medtech and healthcare innovation space.
What are three interesting facts about you and your work as a medtech innovator?
- I am passionate about working in areas that have great social impact. Moving over from banking and driving bottom-line profits for large corporates to working on healthcare innovations allows me to create investor returns with a social conscience and to positively impact the societies we live in.
- Being an eternal learner makes it fun to be in innovative spaces – I thrive in an environment that values the unknown and finds ways to charter through a space that has not yet been created.
- I am a mom to three beautiful children who inspire me each day with their love for life, care for others, and unending creativity to brighten up any person’s day.
- Describe what it’s like to work as a biotech/research and development (R&D) specialist in South Africa today. What are some of the biggest challenges you face developing low-cost diagnostics and healthcare tools?
TOUGH! South Africa does not have a strong ecosystem to develop the biotechnology industry, hence we have many qualified PhD scientists taking on sales jobs selling medical supplies and tests that are imported from elsewhere. There is great support from the South African Department of Science and Technology to encourage R&D of biotech products, however the financial services and nascent venture capital (VC) industry does not have the risk appetite to pursue their commercialization.
It is a big gap for international investors looking for low-cost diagnostics or healthcare tools developed for Africa and high disease-burden countries. Since these are developed closer to the patient and user populations, they are designed in real time to meet the need thus facilitating greater market acceptance and returns.
- What is the IRISA™ TB test and what success have you had in bringing this product to market?
The IRISA™ TB test is designed to detect TB that occurs outside the lungs, which is usually very difficult to detect and the tests currently available do not perform optimally. This means that patients are often treated empirically and, worse, the diagnosis is often missed. It is a huge problem as this is both expensive for an ailing health system, but it is also difficult for the patient as it’s often a six-month treatment for patients who may not even need it. Current diagnostic tests are either misdiagnosing or missing patients with the disease, hence there is a need for a highly specific and sensitive test.
The IRISA™ TB test has been recognized by UNITAID as an up-and-coming diagnostic test for extra-pulmonary TB, as well as by the South African Department of Science and Technology and SanBio as an impactful innovation. The test is currently being clinically validated across a number of countries with excellent results.
- Antrum works with a variety of academic, technical, scientific, government and business partners to improve access to affordable in-vitro diagnostics. Why are these cross-sector collaborations so important in order to accelerate the development of diagnostics that can address major global health challenges?
Working in silos to meet global health challenges is not going to help anyone – the traditional closed business model of safeguarding your product development is being eroded with nimble, resilient open business models. Collaboration is essential on all fronts – patients, business, competitors, academics, agencies, government and the various foundations not only to increase the pace of development, but also the quality and usability of in-vitro diagnostics being developed. Scientific development must be coupled with distribution networks, regulators that will endorse the use of the products in targeted countries and government agencies that will buy these products.
This is the only way the end user will benefit and this approach facilitates more rapid and bespoke development.
What are three tips for medtech innovators and entrepreneurs developing low-cost tools and diagnostics for global health challenges?
- Develop a product that is patient-centric, scalable and has a realistic market strategy that accurately identifies the size, value, potential uptake and cost. Product registrations particularly around Africa can be a lengthy process and therefore a well-honed market entry strategy is important.
- Choose a VC partner who shares in your vision to address global health challenges. This is vital since most VC’s primary focus is on a high rate of return within a short space of time – diagnostic development has a long trajectory, albeit not as long as drug development, but it needs a patient investor who believes in the global impact. Managing their funds in a lean manner has proven to be helpful particularly when you come up with scientific challenges.
- Hire the right skills and enable the team to think creatively. Even though we do not have all the skills in country, I have worked hard to ensure that the team travels to learn these skills wherever they are and hired international experts to add to the local knowledge base. In addition, the development of female scientists is a personal mission, and Antrum therefore employs many women with a passion for working in global health. We are proud to note that our team and Board are mainly female leveraging all our assets in resilience, thought leadership, value collaboration and networking.