For about a decade now, the big three medtech companies—Wipro GE Healthcare, Philips Healthcare and Siemens Healthineers—have desperately tried their luck in rural India. And had little success.

They’ve made repeated attempts to sell everything from ECGs to X-rays and infant warmers to the rural population.

So, when S Ganeshprasad, the then-director at GE, spotted Aravamudan Krishna Kumar, the then-managing director at Philips, at a radiology conference in 2015, he was curious about Philips’ latest attempt.

After pleasantries, Kumar told him, “Ganesh, our rural experiment failed. It’s so difficult, you know, to maintain. Business is not very predictable; somewhere it works, somewhere it doesn’t work.”

2010 onwards, all device makers adjusted and readjusted to the market’s needs, building brand-new products from the ground up. Low-cost ultrasounds, ECGs and infant warmers. But the target market didn’t make an easy switch. Philips, it appeared, was the latest casualty. Ganeshprasad’s heart skipped.

You see, GE was to announce its latest experiment that very day. It had a minority 26% stake in GenWorks Health Private Limited, an independent startup that would sell affordable GE devices to rural India, primarily for a commission. This would be the first such investment for the conglomerate. Ganeshprasad would helm GenWorks.

He had been with GE for 18 years, heading sales of ultrasounds, cardiology and other products. Under his tenure, the ultrasound business grew to $100 million in sales, with a 48% marketshare, making it among the most successful portfolios at GE. “Oh my god, I’m getting into it today!” Ganeshprasad recalled thinking last month at his office, which is in an IT park, a 15-minute drive from the GE campus in Bengaluru.

Following GE’s announcement of GenWorks, colleagues had crowded around Ganeshprasad at the conference, he recalled.

All of them had questions. “Why did you do this? You’re so successful!” “Why did you even do this man, c’mon!” “This is stupid, this is a risk you’re taking at this stage of your life. Now GE will just forget this, what will happen to you?”

Selling healthcare to rural Indians is a tough proposition, so medtech companies focus on urban residents. Today, a major portion of the revenue of many companies comes from selling to corporate hospitals and large diagnostic centres in metro cities. That’s unfortunate because most of India’s population—about 833 million people—live in the countryside and go to government or rural hospitals. Many do not have access to MRIs, CT scanners or even low-cost devices (or “boxes”, in industry parlance) such as ECGs. A whole market remains under tapped.

Indian challenge

MNCs realised in the late 90s that equipment sourced from the US does not work well in India. The dimensions, weight and the mobility parameters of these equipment were poor because they had to be fixed and used in one place, said Raghunath Subramanian at IIM Bangalore.

AUTHOR

Gayathri Vaidyanathan

Gayathri writes on health, environment and science. She has reported and produced stories for the Washington Post, Discover, Nature, and the New York Times, amongst other publications. In her last assignment, she was the lead science writer for E&E News in Washington, D.C. E&E News is a news organisation focused on energy and the environment. Over the past decade, Gayathri has travelled across North America, Africa and Asia on long-form reporting projects. She has a master’s in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's in biochemistry from McMaster University in Ontario. At The Ken, Gayathri will write on healthcare, the pharmaceutical business and the environment. Based in Bengaluru, you can reach her at gayathri at the rate the-ken.com

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