Dr Vishal Warke,
HiMedia Laboratories, Mumbai
HiMedia Laboratories, a leading manufacturer of products for
microbiology, parasitology, immunology, serology and virology is
counted amongst the world’s few companies possessing high-technology
know-how for manufacturing microbiological culture media. HiMedia has
over 3,000 microbiology products. Its products are available and used
in almost all parts of the world, and compete with other products of
In an exclusive with BioSpectrum, Dr Vishal Warke, director (R&D),
HiMedia Laboratories, throws light on the activities of the company and
its achievements in the past two years, which include proactively
combating the H1N1 menace in the country. Excerpts from the interview.
Q What are the
advantages of the Swine Flu Transport kits introduced by HiMedia?
The Swine Flu Transport kit was introduced prior to the H1N1 epidemic
attack in India. We started our work when swine flu surfaced in Mexico;
and also, around that time there were some ongoing investigation at the
National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune. We were also alerted by
marketing team about the flu. Realizing the need, we became proactive
in producing these kits.
This is a unique kit, sold at one-tenth the cost of other swine flu
kits available in the market. This transport kit uses a unique swab
(known as flocculated swab) wherein, just by placing it in the nasal
cavity, it draws in a lot of viral particles. The nature of this kit is
such that the entire material can be preserved in the swab, and held in
place. The medium consists of certain components so that the virus
remains in the swab for a good period of time, without it being killed.
Q How much investment was made for developing the swine
flu kits and how was it marketed?
Swine flu kits were produced in millions, and were supplied to all
cities in India. The only concern for us was, scalability. We faced a
situation where all our distributors and clients (mainly hospitals)
loaded us with huge orders; but we could supply these swabs only in
parts. We increased our investment on the production of these kits. Our
infrastructure in Nashik (Maharashtra) was already in place, and so
were our clean rooms. We acquired six new biosafety level type 2
cabinets, and bought in filtration equipments and accordingly, we
mobilized manpower. We procured 15 ml tubes from all parts of the
During the epidemic, around 99 percent of the swabs used in the country
were manufactured by HiMedia. The demand for the viral transport media
and swabs was very high at that time; and we could have increased the
price and gained benefits out of it, but we chose not to. While other
companies sold their swabs at an exorbitant rate, the price of our
swabs were kept around $1.11 (`50). It was a national emergency; and
supplying excellent quality, affordable, viral transport kits, was our
contribution to the cause.
Q Apart from swine flu kits, what are the other
milestones of HiMedia in the past two years ?
HiMedia is a group of companies, and Warkem Biotech is our sister
company. We produce HiVeg Peptones (Hydrolysates prepared from
non-animal sources, such as wheat, corn and soy) that are manufactured
by Warkem Biotech. The manufacturing plant has been scaled up; and will
cater to the global needs, particularly with the increasing demand for
non-animal protein hydrolysates - given the risk of Mad Cow Disease -
from animal-origin material. This apart, we have been supplying
different kinds of kits on a regular basis. We have launched
comprehensive and easy-to-perform kits for soil and water analysis, for
farmers and agriculturists. We have also launched kits for milk
adulteration testing, and detection of arsenic in water. Another kit
that we have launched is to detect mastitis in cows (in collaboration
with Shree Chitra Tirunal Institute, Kerala). We also have
cost-effective kits for detection of sickle cell anemia (screening as
well as confirmation).
The National Biodiversity Screening Program was introduced two years
ago, by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), to screen the rich and
diverse flora and fauna in India. This program is being conducted by
the DBT along with 13 key institutions in India. HiMedia is a partner
in supplying culture media, to isolate and then to maintain, the
We have also entered stem cell and primary cell market. We have already
made these cells and media available to our scientists at an affordable
cost. The key bottleneck in the market, is the price. We will soon
scale up production for stem cells, primary cells and their media; and
hope to reduce the prices significantly. Presently, we are importing
them; although we are also setting up systems to separate them in
India. By 2011, we hope to manufacture and make these available in
Q Within your portfolio offerings, which were the
revenue churning segments for HiMedia in the past two years?
Culture media is the basis of our business; and brings in the maximum
revenue. We also get a sizable chunk of revenue from exports, as about
50 percent of HiMedia’s production today is exported. We cater to 125
countries; and our vision was to produce media in India and sell them
abroad to compete with the best brands in the world. Because, the
Indian market, in terms of microbiology and media, is witnessing a
saturation point; many people are moving away from media, towards
automated systems that are also on our priority list.
On the global front, we have partnered with US-based VWR, and are
making inroads into the US market. We have offices in the US, Russia,
CIS and Brazil, where we have a strong presence and are growing
The US is the largest market for us. Due to the economic recession,
most companies overseas are looking at cutting down costs, and
therefore, want good quality media, at affordable prices; and that is
where HiMedia fits the bill.
In cell culture, we have advanced in a big way into serum-free and
animal-free media. HiMedia has given out serum-free media samples; and
have received very encouraging feedback.
Moreover, we are also looking at expanding our chemical and fine
chemical supplies segment, since we realized that many reputed players
in the fine chemicals and reagent market, are actually sourcing
chemicals from India; and reselling them to India, after relabeling in
their respective countries. We have set up a world class chemical
testing and validation laboratory with this objective.
Q Is HiMedia looking at any strategic alliance,
partnership or acquisition in near future?
Nothing on the cards as yet. Many companies were interested in
acquiring HiMedia and we have received attractive offers. But, we are
scientists first, and businessmen later, so we declined the offer. We
have people who want to partner with us for the chemical division; and
talks are in progress on that front.
We are open to making acquisitions, particularly for ready prepared
media which has a demand in North America and Europe.
So, we are looking at setting up a base in the US, where we can ship
our powdered media to be re-hydrated there.
Q What are the strategies for the company in the coming
We are focusing on biopharma and vaccine industry. They are using our
hydrolysates and media. We are focused on providing a complete solution
to them, instead of simply supplying products. We essentially have
products in microbiology, cell culture, molecular biology and plant
tissue culture. We are also planning to develop certain products for
fertility clinics; although that is still in the ideation phase.
Additionally, we have expanded our ready prepared or pre-poured
microbiology media plates facility, to produce 50,000 plates per day.
With this, we hope to cater to the burgeoning Indian pharmaceutical
market, as well as exporting them to nearby countries. In the cell
culture space, we are looking at introducing induced pluripotent stem
cells (iPS) because ,this is the future; and these are currently
exorbitantly priced, and difficult to procure in India.
Q Will there be any change in the business model?
We are not looking at any change in our business model, as that has
served us well over the years. We are not in a hurry to grow big
overnight, and have a conservative approach, and managed to keep a
healthy and steady growth rate over the last decade.
Our finances are well-managed, and further funding is not a problem as
financial firms are willing to give us funds. However, at this point,
we are not looking at any additional funding, either through equity
funding or IPO. Technologically, we have our identity, and we would
like to preserve that, and hold on to our conservative approach.