When Vikram Vuppala, an IIT Kharagpur graduate, came back to Hyderabad after completing his course at Booth School of Business in Chicago, he wanted to do something in the field of health care. That’s when he chanced upon a blog by Kamal Shah, a graduate in chemical engineering from Osmania University, about how he was coping with dialysis. They soon met to discuss the unmet needs of dialysis patients. Along with Sandeep Gudibanda, an Indian School of Business graduate, they started NephroPlus, a chain of premium dialysis centres, in 2010 with Vuppala as founder and CEO, Gudibanda as co-founder and director of business development and Shah as co-founder and director of patient services.
“People scoffed at us when we opened our first centre, saying many others had come before us and closed shop,” says Shah. “But we are still around and are thinking of expanding further.”
Shah was planning to pursue higher studies in the US in 1997 when he learnt of his illness. After a routine vaccination, he developed nausea and dizziness and a biopsy confirmed that he had a rare disease that affects two in a million people and hinders kidney function. Although in many patients the condition is reversible, it was not so with Shah and he has been on dialysis since the age of 21. After he was on dialysis for a year and a half, his mother donated a kidney but, unfortunately, the donated kidney developed the same mutation after eleven days.
He was on peritoneal dialysis, where the natural filtering ability of the peritoneum or the internal lining of the abdomen is utilised, when he co-founded Effigent, a company which developed software for Apple products. (It had offices in San Jose in the US, Bengaluru and Hyderabad but the founders sold it in 2008.) In December 2004, Shah was in Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu when the tsunami hit the coast. He survived by holding on to a parapet but the sac, tube and catheter of his dialysis equipment were contaminated and the peritoneal cavity lost its ability to filter. Since 2006, Shah has been on daily nocturnal hemodialysis.
“In the hospital where I went for dialysis, the billing was on the ground floor and the dialysis took place on the fourth floor. Just as you reached there, you would be requested to do a blood test at a lab on a different floor,” he says. “The dialysis itself is a four-hour process three times a week. Keeping all this is mind, we have worked out an easier method at NephroPlus. Apart from pick-up and drop at a nominal fee, the dialysis patients or ‘guests’ get free Wi-Fi to work on their computers and there is a separate TV for every patient.” You can also avail of free consults with dieticians.
He talks of a nurse in the US who noticed how all her patients were always complaining about the four-hour process. She subjected herself to an experiment to understand their problems. She lay in bed for four hours with tubes running down her arm which was not supposed to move for four hours. Since the patients developed swollen legs because of water retention, she placed one litre saline packets on her feet. After spending four hours in this manner, she, too, was in a grumpy mood. Her attitude towards her patients improved after this small experiment.
At NephroPlus, strict protocols are followed to avert cross-infection. It gives a lot of importance to guest care. There are also inclusive programmes for patients that are both fun and educational. After the games, talks by doctors are held, and elaborate lunches follow. A ‘dialysis Olympiad’ is held periodically where patients participate in running, cycling, basketball and other competitions. “We live and breathe these values to make the guests smile,” says Shah.
The biggest challenge the startup faced was in making the treatment and drugs affordable. The two rounds of funding of approximately Rs 75 crore it got from Bessemer Venture Partners and International Finance Corporation helped. Today, NephroPlus has around 800 employees in its 57 centres in 14 states of India. Each centre has eight to ten beds with three dialysis cycles a day for each bed. Shah does nocturnal dialysis at home for eight hours leaving him free to work during the day.
“I am living my dream and my life is fulfilling,” he says. “Dialysis is a part of my life. I swim, teach at the temple pathshala and do a lot of patient counselling. My parents are also used to it now and my father handles our water treatment plant because clean water is a must for dialysis.”
I can't think of anything.
On speed dial
My co-founders, my parents and my chauffeur
To be a software engineer. In retrospect, I think I have done much better
A house in Banjara Hills, where we opened our first dialysis centre
Top on to-do list
To get a portable dialysis machine so that travelling around becomes easier.
My long-term goal is to start a dialysis centre in every district of the country