Zoya Brar, Founder and CEO, CORE Diagnostics and Dr. Shivani Sharma, Vice President, Pathology Services, CORE Diagnostics discuss how technology has been leveraged for COVID testing while keeping focus on other treatments.
What is the operating business model of CORE Diagnostics and how all does technology drive this business?
The business model for CORE has been very simple right from the beginning. Our intention was been to bring innovative testing to Indian patients and the way we do it is by bringing new technology, and new kind of testing modalities. A lot of technology that is available globally is available in India too, but often we do not know what to do with it. Or we do not always have the right expert to use the technology to launch these innovative tests. This has been a key aspect of what we do.
We have been a B2B business and it is very key to how we operate. We work with other businesses, hospitals, pharma companies. We also work with the government in a big way to support all the diagnostic programs and through these channels we reach out to patients and ensure that they have the best diagnostic solutions. As far as technology is concerned, I think that has always been an underlying theme of everything we have done right from the beginning. Right from the beginning, , the underlying theme of all our conversations has been how can we be more advanced from a technology standpoint, and how can we ensure that we are not doing repeated things manually, how can we automate stuff. Of course, sometimes automation in the beginning costs more, is slower and tough to implement but certainly in the long run technology enables everything we have done from a business model perspective and is very key.
What are the key technology solutions used by CORE Diagnostics and what are their use cases?
I would divide this into three parts as the functions of any lab are divided into pre-analytic analytic and post analytic. I think in the pre-analytic, technology helps us in getting the correct information of the patient, barcode the patient right at the source. We do it with a very interesting CORE wings app. By this, I mean that we directly communicate with the patient and in the app enter all the information and here in Gurgaon, we immediately get the entire criteria, information, radiology reports of the patients, and we can also track the sample movement. So I can track where my footfall motorcycle is right now at this moment. And when will the sample reach our lab. This helps us to make an important check all pre-analytic parameters. If there is a delay in the sample, the data loggers are all filed up fine and they are all automated.
Going into the analytic phase as we are a high end diagnostic lab, there are a lot of cumbersome technologies which be used like histopathology or cytogenetics. All of this has been made very simple by using scanners, which automatically take images. We were the first ones to do a lot of these things about eight years back and we understood that to be very efficient all this will be required.
So besides analytic, in the post analytic phase we have very good on huge cheat out for patients from eight years in different parts of the country and other countries we now this entire data in a format which is called the gold curate wherein all the data is streamlined in the form of a dashboard where all the positivity, all the information gets automatically updated. Now, this can be directly used by a lot of scientists across the globe and can even be used for diagnostics. The technology in this helps us to be an efficient company where we can get this data to people. The underlying principle of all of the three types is the same that we have a singular technology, which has been developed by us or ourselves. We can change it the way we want or we can tailor made it. So that is how the whole landscape of technology at CORE works.
How have you been driving digital innovations across functions/departments in your organisation?
Digital innovation has been a kind of an underlying theme at CORE given the background of the founders. We have done consistently the one thing –when we bring somebody on board, we try to understand right at the interview level, how comfortable they are with technology, how comfortable they are with not just new tech, but also learning new things. Otherwise often especially in the diagnostic space now and given that we are doing it ourselves, the pace of technology changes so frequently.
Step one is hire the people that already have the right attitude and get excited by technology and not just want to do their regular work, but also want to learn and do things quicker, faster and better. Step two is a lot of the training programs that we do are geared towards ensuring that this happens very smoothly, very effortlessly and of course, I think given that there is no alternative system. In other labs there is a lot of manual work that happens which allows people to get away, but if you do not do it that way, you cannot take the report. If you do not take out the report, we lose our main bread and butter. Somebody will come screaming at you and it will be angry cancer patient.So it is very important that the system gets followed.
What are the key challenges for digital transformation and what would your advice be to counter these challenges?
The greatest challenge is the habit to get into a new routine or a new technology because still our training system l in India in a lot of medical schools remains paper based. Bringing people who join our company to this uncomfortable zone and trying to make them tech savvy is the greatest challenge. More senior the people, the more you need to destroy what we have learned all through the years, but then this master plan helps them to make them acknowledge that this is a good system. When COVID hit us and we knew that everything had to be done with great speed and everything was a data transformation and transmission to the ICMR portal, all my team members knew that we have to work on technology based systems. It cannot be manual and so this has helped us to be very efficient in this regard also.
What is the internal team structure in CORE Diagnostics to monitor and direct tech usage? How are these teams aligned with the business functions?
We are a pretty flat organization overall, even though now we are almost 500 people but we are a very startup like in our organization structure. The top team is just eight people. One of them is my co-founder who heads technology. Of course Dr Shivani is in that team as well and she kind of ensures that whatever the technology solution the IT team is creating actually gets implemented on the ground. The top team understands it, as they are the first users. Once we are convinced that the software actually works, then it gets transferred to anybody else in the team. And I think once you have the top leadership believe in technology, it is almost automatic that the rest of the organization adopts it. It is almost like a cultural thing, more than processes and frameworks. Of course we have all the right processes to support it, but I think culture is a key aspect that kind of differentiates the enablement of tech at CORE.
How has been the migration at CORE Diagnostics to a cloud-based environment and what has been the security challenges in this journey?
We were a cloud based from day one. So a lot of innovation goes into technology. I never feel that there was a transition from the day 1. We have never had the transition but there have been challenges in between which we sort out day by day.
What has been the economic and business impact of COVID19 on CORE Diagnostics functioning?
If I had to put it in a nutshell, one of the things we as a business have had to cope with is that we are now a provider of COVID testing solution. We are actually part of the solution rather than the problem, whilst we also face the problem like every other organization and every other person in the country. We have to play the part where we are doing that but also providing support to all the necessary government agencies, NGOs, the public in general that is dealing with it. Our processes had to be really revamped overnight to deal with the load and volume that we have had to face because we are clear.
Back in March, we did a meeting and planned to start working from home. And while we are doing that, we will need to be a provider of covid testing. And this was way before the government allowed any private agency to test, but it was clear that the government is not going to be able to handle the kind of volumes that are unfortunately going to be there. We started enabling ourselves internally within 24 hours of having that conversation the team had set up a BSL 2 lab, which is momentous. I have not seen that happen globally anywhere where a BSL 2 lab gets set up that quickly. And of course we went through all the regulatory processes or steps that were needed, which are quite a few because the government themselves was trying to grapple with this new situation that they did not necessarily plan for.
Whilst all of this was happening, obviously we also had our entire organic business which was oncology or cancer. We had to make sure that those patients were also getting what they needed because COVID is the latest thing that we are all talking about and dealing with, but reality is that even diseases like cancer are still there and then they are not going away just like that. We have to serve that piece and we had to do that with the same team because you cannot hire overnight. It took us that time to ramp up to train, to ensure processes were in place and also ensure that expected service quality did not drop. So it has been quite an interesting and exciting journey.
On the economic front like every other business there has been an impact because of COVID– both negative and positive. In our case obviously the negative is that in the original business or the business we are in, the number of patients has of course reduced. There is some impact of that, but COVID has made up some work since we are also in that business. So I would say we are better off than a lot of other ones industries, fortunately or unfortunately, but we have our share of problems with it.
How have you been handling your workforce during lockdown?
This question is very close to my heart because what saved us from being a very dull company to a very sparkling company even in a time of COVID was the Culture. What was basically needed in this entire scenario was to bring out information about this disease, about the stigma around it and we all openly talked about it. We were very comfortable to share all our fears and in each teams we ensured that people are secure enough to talk in that scenario. People came up with great enthusiasm in contrast to what I heard in other companies and other labs. We had a team which came forward and said we will do it for the patients, whatever it takes. What we did at our end was a background check of all the employees through our HR systems to see if they are going through any symptoms or where are they going, what are they doing all day and the monitoring that really helped us.
Secondly we changed our entire workflow in the lab to ensure that they must have social distancing, all the labs have safety taken care of and all these efforts really enabled people who are coming to the lab to feel secure and free to work but there were difficult times. It was initially challenging because we have never faced a situation like this ever, but just because we are very open to talk to, we work like a startup, like a family we could maintain the workforce.
How are digital technologies going to help you to tide over the crisis without significant business disruption?
We have a very simple focus. Number one, we do want to ensure that whatever we are testing for COVID, we collect the right information, process it correctly, research it, statistically analyze it in the right manner and then publish it, so that that information is broadly available to as many people that can use it. And then that information of course adds to our progress as well. Whilst it is a scientific goal, but the IT agenda is very geared towards that scientific goal.
Secondly, the IT agenda is geared towards ensuring that our remote workforce now, which has learning overnight to be remote, is productive. We are able to track work effectively. We have noticed that productivity has actually gone up because people are happier with the flexibility, but of course those things, we have to track more infinitely and closely to ensure that you are not missing anything along the way. So that would be the second very important thing that the IT team is focused on.
What is your IT Agenda for 20-21?
Third is just the scaling of the business. We anticipate that COVID unfortunately is not going to go away anytime soon, which means our role to play in COVID testing is going to only go up and we are seeing that scale up much faster than we had even anticipated in the beginning. So a lot of the tech platforms that we have had to quickly scale up to come up to speed. And I think that will continue to happen for the next year.