Immunity, strength, resilience and so many words have now formed the crux of human existence due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While meditating, exercising, drinking kaadhas and altering your diet can help a lot, there is no denying that the need for complete nutrition is being discussed, now more than ever. And this is where nutritional supplements come into the picture. Yet the world of manufacturing these essential supplements remained a mystery for quite some time and the world was divided on their authenticity.

Bhavna Basu’s BonAyu Lifesciences has arrived with the vision to revolutionize the way healthcare and lifestyle products are consumed. In conversation with TC46, she talks about how her globally patented manufacturing platform has been successful, working with a credible team of scientists, human behavioural analyzers, engineers and nutritionists, and how she monetized her innovative venture.

1. What’s your educational & professional background?

I did my graduation and MBA from University Business School, Chandigarh. And I have almost completed 20 years of work before starting my own business.

2. What prompted the idea for BonAyu Lifesciences?

My partner and brother Vishal Kataria and I are both from the pharmaceutical industry. I was in the Human Resources function and was heading the HR for R&D, as well as for some marketing functions. Vishal had worked in process engineering and scale-up studies in the pharmaceutical industry.

We knew that consumers take a lot of medicines today, but there wasn’t much innovation in terms of the delivery format. Tablets and capsules were the main delivery systems, and they were often difficult to consume for kids and the geriatric population. So we knew there is an opportunity to innovate and that’s how the idea came up for our venture. After doing a lot of research, we found out that oral thin films are the best delivery format of delivery, apart from injections, because they directly go into the bloodstream, bypassing the stomach through saliva. These thin films were actually developed quite a lot about 25 years back by Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer. They were not very popular because of the fact that the dosages that go into these thin strips were minimal – like 10mg to 40mg. And that restricted the quantity of the products. But with our extensive backgrounds in the pharmaceutical industry, we knew that we could solve this issue. 

We started speaking with the Bangalore Innovation Centre, a government incubation centre, where we opened our lab and we started our research. After 2 years of research, we filed a patent and now we have global patents on thin-film platforms. This allows us to come up with so many different varieties of products because of the dosages, which we can add per strip, which are much higher than any strips that are available globally.

3. Did you always know you wanted to work in this space?

We always knew that the pharma industry needed an all-natural way, and for us to come into the medical side or nutraceutical side was logical. Having worked for 20 years in the pharma industry, it came naturally to us that this is the area that we have to venture into. We obviously knew we could use the engineering technology and engineering background of my partner to get it to this area.

4. What was your first milestone and how did you get there?

The first milestone was opening our own lab and making our own custom-designed equipment for this particular technology. When you buy these types of equipment, they cost nothing less than Rs 3 crore to Rs 4 crore. That was a very big deal for us as a startup. We developed our own equipment and custom-designed the equipment. That’s the core of our patent—that we designed our own equipment—it was one of our biggest achievements. Initially, the equipment didn’t work and we were nervous. But these are the challenges that every company, every start-up should expect to face. Slowly and steadily, we resolved those issues. 

The second, very entrusting milestone that we could see was, the thin films. J&J and Pfizer had developed Listerine mouth dissolving strips 25 years back but post that, there weren’t many products which had come into the market. The dosages and processes of these thin films that are being made were the major reasons. We happened to meet J&J’s ex-global CEO of the consumer division, who had seen the Listerine mouth strip and was obviously an expert in this area. When we showed him our prototype and what we had come up with, how in one strip itself we can add more such dosages in a cost-effective way, he was very impressed. He immediately decided to become an angel investor. And that’s how we achieved our second milestone. It was one of the most validating partnerships for us.

There are several other milestones that mean a lot to us. The government granted patents, the best start-up award of the year in the life science industry, the top innovator award in the global biotech site, and so many more. 

Even conducting our own R&D and being self-funded was a big deal. We successfully transitioned from B2B to B2C and opened up our own small plant in Bangalore in the Jigani Industrial Area. Today, we have 50 products being launched on different online platforms.

5. What are your tips for an aspiring entrepreneur who wants to enter this space?

For any entrepreneur, but specifically in the area of R&D, where you are having your own patent or your own research (not services or brand manufacturing), you need to have a lot of patience and perseverance. It took us almost five years to bring the product to market. 

The second important factor is the support from your family because you don’t earn right away. The thought that ‘I am not earning anything’ will prevail. This is where your family and partners can help you to keep going.

The third thing is, be prepared to be discouraged by a lot of advisors. I was told not to bring my products into the market and to give it to somebody else. Your venture is like your baby and you need to see it grow. You need to have the confidence that you can see things through and emerge victorious. It’s your idea, your research and your hard work that got you where you are so don’t let someone tell you to handover your dream project to another person.

6. What were the 3 best business decisions you made?

One – that you need to invest on your own first. Do not rely directly on government grants or somebody else at first. If you invest your own money into the company, you know you have skin in the game so you’re likely to persevere and push to succeed in the initial stage of uncertainty.

Secondly, we decided to not spend on the expensive equipment available in the market and instead, we developed our own equipment. Some of the equipment like the cutting line which comes from Germany costs Rs 7 crore. By developing things in-house, we were able to control the cost of operations and cost of delivery to customers as Indians are very price sensitive. 

Lastly, our choice to use the government provided incubation centre worked well for us. At the beginning of your start-up, you can’t afford to have such a high-end expensive instrument to do your research. The government provides these on a rental basis, so you won’t end up spending a lot on capital expenses. It had all the support and heavy expensive equipment needed.

7. How long did it take you to monetise your venture? 

It took four and a half years. Initially, we were trying to do B2B. We realised that the value of the product in the Indian B2B market is very little and not lucrative enough for the company. The kind of research it takes and the amount of money that it requires also needs a huge amount of return. And when you go from a B2B perspective, you get very little for your research and not much appreciation comes from this industry. So we worked to scale up the model. We decided to commercialise this product, bring out as many products as we can into the market, and start selling these products directly to the consumers. There is not even a single company in India today in the nutraceutical site, which could make a mark globally. But we have, by proving that we are more than an R&D company.

If you have to make your mark, you have to come up with something unique that has not been done by anyone and that’s where our expertise lies. Even though there are films, which are available in the market today also, everything is very dosage specific – 30mg, 40mg, maximum of 100mg in a strip. We have come up with products that have up to 500mg in a strip. For instance, we have caffeine strips for runners, marathon runners, athletes, and cyclists. We have green tea strips for weight management; we have curcumin, which is an extract of turmeric in the form of thin strips. Nobody could have done it, nobody could do it earlier and from a consumer standpoint, this becomes a very convenient way to take these supplements. 

8. Are you looking for funding for your business? 

We are looking for funding. We have been bootstrapping and have secured angel investments. We are looking for a partner who can help take our products global. The application of our products is universal and we know there is no looking back now. We have three patents being filed and we want to monetise our business.

9. Who are the key partners one needs to secure to work in this space?

Scientists and freshers – scientists who come up with great ideas are our key employees. They don’t come with preconceived notions about the work. To lead in the market, you need innovation along with R&D; together they help you stay ahead of the competition. Over the years, our team has come up with not just oral thin strips but also topical delivery systems that have to be applied onto the skin. You will see a lot of innovation coming out of our venture in the coming years.

10. How do you intend to scale up your business in the next 5 years?

We have products for all age groups, for all the food supplements that you need. We have products for cosmetics, like acne and glutathione and products for women, kids, men. Teeth whitening strips, a popular product is our new star product. Those strips are available globally but in India, we didn’t realise those would become very popular. Dental hygiene, weight management, skin care, overall health and sports are some of our categories. The strips are gluten-free, sugar-free, and have all-natural ingredients. We work on customised supplements. You can contact our nutritionist who would understand your issues and guide you on how much dosage personally you need to take and how that impacts you. We’re entering a variety of categories and will work on expanding in every vertical. We are also moving to launch our products in the US and European markets this year.

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