Interview with Pavan Asalapuram, co-founder of EMPE Diagnostics

Sciety talks with Pavan Asalapuram, co-founder of EMPE Diagnostics, a company that develops rapid diagnostic solutions for infectious diseases, with a special focus on tuberculosis––a major public health problem in big parts of the world. EMPE’s test can within two hours identify whether a person has TB and whether it is antibiotic resistant.

Hi Pavan! Tell us about the idea and vision of EMPE Diagnostics?

Our idea is to develop DNA-based diagnostics that are suitable for resource limited clinical laboratories in low- and middle-income countries. We have integrated proven technology for diagnosis of infectious diseases with technology that allows test results to be read quickly and easily without the need for advanced equipment.

EMPE’s first target is tuberculosis, which is a major public health problem in several low- and middle-income countries.

How come you founded EMPE?

I came to Sweden from India 10 years ago to do research in Chemistry, Biotechnology and Health (CBH) at KTH. After some time at KTH, Stockholm University offered me to participate in a project that aimed to develop diagnostics for multi-resistant tuberculosis. The project used an advanced so-called PLP-RCA technology to detect tuberculosis bacteria and their resistance profiles.

The technology is very effective, but I quickly found out that it is not well suited for simpler resource limited clinical laboratories as advanced equipment is needed to interpret the results. I then understood the need for a simpler diagnostic solution.

Tell us more about EMPE’s products?

By integrating proven technologies, so-called lateral flow chemistry and PLP-RCA technology, EMPE has managed to develop a simple diagnostic solution in the form of a test cassette. Markings on the test cassette show whether a person has tuberculosis and if it is resistant to antibiotics.

The test requires no advanced equipment and the result can be read directly on site. It takes about two hours from sampling to result, which can be compared to existing diagnostics which can take several months. We want to help the health care centers to start immediate treatment with appropriate antibiotics from the first clinical meeting. Early use of the right antibiotics is important for the treatment to be successful, but also to reduce the spread of infection and prevent the further development of antibiotic-resistant forms of tuberculosis.

What market potential do you see?

I see a global demand for our products. In India at least 33 million tuberculosis tests are performed per year and the market amounts to about 80 million USD per year. A major challenge with the existing tests is that it can take up to six months to be diagnosed and that the rapid tests available require advanced equipment or do not cover all the most common forms of antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis. We are now conducting clinical validations with two potential customers: one of India’s largest private laboratory chains for diagnostics and a large university hospital in India.

How will you sell the product?

We will primarily use our network of established distributors to sell our products to hospitals, laboratory chains and tuberculosis agencies. EMPE is also setting up medical device manufacturing facility in India that can handle production and global sales. Our team has experienced people like the General Manager of Asia Pacific at GE Health care and a person who previously worked at the Indian Public Health Authority. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to present our solution to representatives of the Indian Public Health Authority, the World Health Organization (WHO) and clinics who all have given a very positive response to our solution and also provided important feed-back during product development.

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