Kerala companies showcase their achievements during the Arab Health expo held in Dubai
Kerala's endeavour to establish itself as a base for medical device manufacturing is set to receive a major boost as a renowned German institute is scheduled to hold talks with local officials to explore the possibility of collaboration in the sector.
This came after Kerala recently caught the attention of global medtech leaders with their pavilion at the Arab Health Expo in Dubai. Ten Kerala companies, who have established themselves as major players in the medical device industry, showcased their achievements in a separate stall outside of the Indian pavilion.
Officials from Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft will arrive in Kerala in a few weeks' time to discuss research and coordination possibilities, according to C Padmakumar, special officer to K-DISC, who was part of the trade delegation that attended the Dubai expo, which featured over 3,000 exhibitors from over 70 countries.
Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft is one of the leading research organisations in the world and comprises 76 inter-disciplinary research centres across Germany. Established in 1949, the group focuses on nurturing ideas generated in labs and converting them into marketable products and has developed a network of global partners over the years.
If everything goes according to plan, the German collaboration will give a much-needed boost not only to the medtech sector in Kerala, but also help position India as a major player in the global medical device market. According to studies, the Asia-Pacific region is expected to capture an increasing share of global investments, which are expected to reach 409 billion US dollars this year.
In order to secure a fair share of this market, India must develop a cluster of high-quality medical device manufacturers that can gain the trust of medical experts worldwide. Padmakumar believes that Kerala can be the starting point for India's journey in this sector, as it has developed the essential ingredients over the decades for a successful medtech hub, such as quality healthcare, world-class research institutions, medical colleges with hospitals, and a pool of experts not only in medicine but also in other hi-tech engineering fields.
In the past, there have been instances where officials have spoken about developing the state as a hub for various sectors, but the initiatives have often lost momentum after an initial burst of activity. A prime example is the much-touted Space Park, which has yet to materialise in a meaningful way. However, Padmakumar is more optimistic about the prospects for the medtech sector in the state.
He says most of the components needed to create the complex medtech ecosystem have already grown organically in the state, and the current challenge is to bring these components together. As the former director of Terumo Penpol, a leading blood bag manufacturer, he notes that despite tough conditions, a good number of Kerala firms have managed to establish themselves as world-renowned medical equipment makers.
“I was surprised to learn recently that there are about 20 medtech companies based in Kerala that are already noted players on the global stage. There are only about 30 or 40 medical device manufacturers in the state, in my estimation. So the state has an outsized share of production and revenue among the 900 or so firms in the Indian sector,” he says.
The state of Kerala has a significant advantage in the form of premier research institutes, like the Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology. “The research being done at the institute is momentous and it is comparable to any research organisation elsewhere in the world,” says Padmakumar, who is also a director of the Kerala Medical Technology Consortium, a government body responsible for promoting the state as a global destination for medical technology and devices.
Other critical components for establishing a medical equipment manufacturing hub in the state include the existence of top-class medical facilities, such as the Regional Cancer Centre, technology and research centres in fields like life sciences and space tech, high-quality testing facilities, a thriving IT scene including robotics and a digital university, and an ecosystem that has seen hundreds of startups flourish.
The government now has a crucial role to play in providing the necessary support and funding to develop a cluster of medical equipment manufacturers in the state and capitalise on the positive reputation that existing medtech firms have built over the years. The success of these trailblazers in Kerala has the potential to put India firmly on the map as a major global supplier of medical devices.
Padmakumar is confident that the potential partnership with the German institute and the attention garnered at the Dubai expo can provide the necessary visibility to attract investment in the medical equipment sector in Kerala. Among those who showed interest in the Kerala pitch was Essa Abdulla Al Ghurair, chairman of Essa Al Ghurair Investment, and a major shareholder in Prime Healthcare Group, one of the leading healthcare providers in the UAE.
Efforts are also underway to increase the visibility of Kerala firms in countries such as Japan and South Korea, leveraging the success of Terumo Corp's involvement in Terumo Penpol Limited.
This shows “Kerala” can become a brand that could be leveraged to open up the global market for future medtech firms. The government's support, both at the state and central level, will be crucial in providing the necessary push in the form of infrastructure and funding to encourage startups in this sector.
A key thing the local officials can learn from the Fraunhofer model is how they coordinate between different disciplines and make them play a complementary role in innovative methods. That lesson would help the state overcome the problem of current research facilities, educational institutions and incubators working silos, leading to a disconnect between the researcher and the retailer.
The mandate of the state agencies also needs a tweak as software products has been the main focus of agencies like Kerala Startup Mission and it is time small and medium firms developing innovative products are also provided the same kind of backing.
The government has unveiled a plan for the development of a knowledge economy to promote innovations and knowledge initiatives to generate millions of jobs. As a part of the plan, Kerala has already taken a pioneering role in areas like graphene and green hydrogen research and development. On its part, the Kerala Medical Technology Consortium is aiming to make the state the Indian cradle of medical device production by 2032.
The soil is fertile and the seeds are there. All the authorities need to figure out how to draw from the pool of expertise and goodwill to build a suitable environment.
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