Startup Saturday: Couple take ‘WMD’ to marketplace to arrest hair-growth... yes, really!
Mrinmayee Bhushan and Bhushan Vishwanath, of Mindfarm Novatech, created a unique formulation that harnesses a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ for good...Updated: Jul 14, 2018, 17:52 IST
How does one value a discovery?
Mrinmayee Bhushan and Bhushan Vishwanath, founders of Mindfarm Novatech Private Limited, are going to use one word to answer all those questions - Romantaque. Despite the homophone-invoking romantic notion with Romantaque, rest assured, it is a brand. Steeped in science. And, cue Mrinmayee Bhushan’s PhD, in Medical Pharmacology. The other Bhushan in Mindfarm brings a resume resolutely forged in the steel industry.
Mindfarm is on the cusp of a mega breakthrough in the startup space. Only, when it involves pharma tech, the numbers scale up and, in the words of Bhushan Vishwanath, “The need for fund houses to get the meters running once they invest”, is be severely tested.
The dark hero in this startup adventure, production of which is still in Stage 1 funding, is ricin.
Mrinmayee explains with a cautious optimism, “The chemical weapons convention has classified ricin as a poisonous substance. In fact, it is perceived as a weapon of mass destruction (WMD).”
Mrinmayee adds, “There is ample evidence that it (ricin) cannot be weaponised. Ironically, in our ayurvedic texts castor bean and oil (both containing ricin) is used in multiple ways, and efficaciously as well.”
“It all started when I saw an old relative who had a lot of facial hair,” says Mrinmayee, “She used to get very embarrassed it and did not know what to do. Being a biotechnologist, I figured out a solution.”
Mrinmayee knew that hair follicles synthesise proteins that make the hair. So the solution would lay in a protein inhibitor that prevents the hair follicle from growing. Simple explanations like that take several years in a laboratory to examine and that’s the time it took Mrinmayee, before, as she believes, she hit payload.
Says she, “The solution lay in castor beans. These beans contain ricin, the protein synthesis inhibitor. We did some preclinical studies in mice with ricin. Mice have two layers of hair growth that is very thick. What ricin did was cause almost complete hair loss on their bodies, it was like alopecia.”
Mrinmayee Bhushan and Bhushan Vishwanath started Mindfarm and created the product ‘Romantaque’, for all practical purposes a human hair inhibitor (rom - means body hair; antaque - means destroyer - cue the WMD metaphors).
“We did some human safety studies for a cosmetic product that were published in the Journal of Clinical Trials and Patenting,” Mrinmayee says, adding that since Romantaque was to be a cosmetic product regulations did not require Phase 1-4 clinical trials.
What lay next was the formulation that could be used for hair minimisation.This they did in association with IIT Bombay.
Romantaque inhibits hair growth by reducing the size of the hair follicle and when used over a period of time, it will result in shrinking of the hair follicle, thinning of the hair diameter and up to 80% reduction in hair re-growth; at least that’s what it says on the bottle. In 2004, the duo filed for a patent.
That was the easy part. An undisclosed sum of money (at least ~1 crore the above processes would cost) and 15 funding pitches later, Romantaque is still waiting for a money house to hit the red button to take this from WMD to WMC (weapon of mass consumption).
Drug discovery has been easier for the couple than selling it. Says Mrinmayee, “The problem we face is not that ricin does not work, it does and we even have the cosmetic formulation for human use, but it is the classification of ricin that is a big obstacle in our work.”
Says Mrinmayee, “Ideally we would like to do more clinical studies on ricin usage, much like for botox. We have already used up our own money as well as the initial round of funding from the department of Science and Technology under the Tecnho-entrepreunership promotion program fund, which helped develop Romantaque.”
Mrinmayee, “I know what ricin can do. If it can make mice go bald imagine what it can do for the leather industry? If you go to Kanpur you will see the kind of pollution these de-hairing chemicals cause whilst processing animal hide for leather. If ricin is studied more, then this bean (castor) that is exported to supply 84% of the global need for castor oil by India can be put to greater use. The waste product after extracting oil is what can be harvested for ricin. So one manufacturing plant can help stop pollution of another industry. And it is cheaper.”
Big Pharma and cost of success
The Bhushans have a figure they believe will put the life in ricin research. ~28 crore.
“Initially, when we had come up with a formulation, we had approached four MNCs and signed NDAs with them. Johnson & Johnson, Reckitt Benckizer, Church and Dwight and Unilever. One of the bosses from J&J came to meet us in Pune and was very impressed with our product. When she went back to the USA, she said that it was the classification of ricin that is in the way,” says Mrinmayee.
To which Vishwanath adds, “Investors in India are unlike investors in the US. Over there, they are like cowboys who will take a chance with a new abstract and disruptive technology. Over here they are more conservative.”
”We launched Romantaque in 2016 and it is currently available on Amazon and soon on our website. We have so far sold about a 1,000 bottles (at ~750 a pop) and have had good responses from all our users. To reach out to a wider audiences we need to spend on branding and marketing. We have contracted a manufacturer who will make Romantaque,” Mrinmayee says.
They are already in discussion with couple of global players for licensing. “Ideally, we should not get into manufacturing since that is not our core strength. We are an innovations company and our skill lies in developing newer technologies. Like I am now working on a hair growth formulation as well.”
Meanwhile, Mrinmayee is working hard to create awareness about ricin, writing in peer reviewed journals. Making a business out of biotechnology is never easy.