From Vision to Reality: The Inspiring Journey of Venkata Cherukuri, Chairman & Managing Director of TRUSTlab, a Healthcare Startup

Venkata Cherukuri

Interview with Venkata Cherukuri, Chairman & MD, TRUSTlab Diagnostics, a Healthcare Startup

Welcome to an exclusive interview with the remarkable Venkata Cherukuri, the Chairman & Managing Director of TRUSTlab Diagnostics, a pioneering healthcare startup that aims to revolutionize the diagnostics landscape.

Venkata Cherukuri, an MBA from the Australian Graduate School of Business, has experience of advising corporations, partnerships, and limited liability companies on various business strategies and funding across sectors such as pharma, technology, media & entertainment, manufacturing and retail.

TRUSTlab benefits from his rich experience in Design, Research, Finance, Quality control, and Implementation. 

Can you tell us about your background and what inspired you to start TRUSTlab Diagnostics?

Venkata Cherukuri: I was born and raised in India before I moved to Australia at the age of 19 to complete my Bachelor’s and MBA.

I began working in Australia for manufacturing start-ups and later with leading consulting firms, which helped me gain a wealth of experience advising corporations across various industries.

The exposure I thus gained working in Australia helped me start my own company which further enhanced my entrepreneurial skills, leadership skills, operations management, technology delivery and consulting skills.

Talking about inspiration, as a youngster growing in India, I have personally witnessed that healthcare was a bit out-of-bounds, both in terms of affordability & access, for the middle-class population itself, let alone the lower-classes of the social hierarchy.

Family members voluntarily missed visiting healthcare units, to get diagnostics done, or to buy medicines because of issues with affordability & access.

My view of such concerns related to access and affordability of healthcare changed once I landed in Australia, where I found that quality healthcare was within the reach of all sections of the population.

This was my first inspiration, that segued into the dream that if I ever got back to India, it would be to contribute to a change in the existing healthcare scenario and either lead the way or be a part of bringing quality healthcare within the reach of all sections of society.

My second inspiration took root when I got to witness how a family business, close to me, set out to provide the greatest gift anyone can give – “extension of life” through their generic medicines, thus making pharmaceutical drugs more affordable to the Indian population.

I have always believed that if given the option of choosing between one lakh rupees, a one-year fully paid vacation or a few more months of life with one’s loved ones, anyone would pick the third option.

This is the sea-change that generic medicine, and its affordable price-tag, has brought about to the lives of the Indian middle- and lower-classes – a blessing of extension of life, happiness, and togetherness with their loved ones.

This has had an enormous impact on me and inspired me to make healthcare affordable and accessible to the larger masses of the Indian population.

Recently, I was made to stand in a different queue at an airport because of the lack of confidence the authorities had on diagnostic reports originating in India, resulting in considerable inconvenience and re-testing requirements for many Indian international travellers.

At the same time, passengers from other countries were allowed to leave the airport merely after a quick glance at their COVID reports – an experience that left a bitter taste in my mouth.

This made me realise that I should personally contribute, alongside the few leading organized Diagnostic players, to bridge the gap of TRUST that is missing in the Indian Diagnostics industry.

These experiences have inspired the setting up TRUSTlab, a State-of-the-Art Central Clinical Reference and Genomics Research Laboratory network across India, thus bridging the affordability and access gap in the Indian healthcare sector & bridging the Trust gap for Indian Diagnostics on the Global platform.

Kindly brief us about TRUSTlab Diagnostics, its specialization, and the services that it offers.

Venkata Cherukuri: TRUSTlab Diagnostics has a National Reference Laboratory based in Hyderabad, India. Since the inauguration in April 2021, we have rapidly evolved and wish to become a leading diagnostic centre, offering a wide range of routine, specialized, and high-end tests. 

The lab’s expertise spans various fields, including Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Microbiology, Serology, Hematology, Flow Cytometry, Histopathology, Cytology, Clinical Pathology & Cytogenetics.

We are equipped with advanced equipment and technologies and are accredited by NABL, ensuring high-quality and accurate testing.

We are aiming for geographical expansion to ensure we reach the masses in Tier I, Tier II & Tier III cities in India.

We also aim to enter new diagnostic market segments, expand our testing capabilities (both in existing departments and through new departments) and establish a lab of excellence with advanced Genomics applications driven by AI and Machine Learning.

The lab continues to make a profound impact in improving healthcare outcomes and aiding medical teams in making informed decisions for their patients.

What is your biggest USP?

Venkata Cherukuri: Our “Culture” is our biggest USP to both our employees and our external customers. We are in the service industry, and we place the highest importance on providing “service”.

To provide best service, we attract and retain the best talent, and to get the best talent we have developed the right workplace culture.

We do not view culture as the accidental result of individuals drawn together in the same workspace, but we envision it as a strategic imperative.

Our culture is built on Trust, Compassion, Transparency & Beneficence. This internal culture is embedded in the services we deliver to our external customers.  

What are some of the unique challenges that you face as a healthcare startup, and how do you overcome them?

Venkata Cherukuri: The process of medical diagnosis depends upon a range of variables, which includes diversified procedures, competent personnel, functional instruments, suitable facility or lab, reagents, etc.

Each factor is just as important as the other. Furthermore, medical devices include a gamut of instruments ranging from a miniscule syringe used to collect blood samples, to sophisticated diagnostic equipment. Each component has the capacity to grossly impact a diagnosis.

Post COVID the change in industry dynamics has brought pressure on some of these variables and we were not any different from others facing a huge vacuum in finding the right talent & advanced equipment on-time.

This has put pressure on opening more labs and delayed our expansion plan. Being a start-up in an industry that is experiencing a massive boom with several national chains and local labs opening meant that we must prove ourselves to our potential employees and customers that we are the right choice.

Enormous amount of time and effort was put into developing our culture, attracting talent and developing and fine tuning our service-value chain to gain the trust of our customers.  

Can you share with us some of the key milestones that TRUSTlab Diagnostics has achieved since its inception?

Venkata Cherukuri: Since its establishment in April 2021, TRUSTlab Diagnostics has achieved remarkable milestones.

Within just one month, the lab commenced commercial operations, offering biochemistry and molecular biology assays, and gained NABL accreditation & ICMR approval for RT-PCR testing for COVID-19.

Nine months down the line, we received full accreditation from NABL for other departments including Biochemistry, Immunology, Serology, Hematology, Microbiology, Molecular Biology, etc.

By June 2021, we had already partnered with 100 networks and expanded our internal testing capabilities.

The lab’s growth continued exponentially with the addition of Flow Cytometry, Histopathology and Cytogenetics departments.

The establishment of regional labs in Bengaluru and Aurangabad and a phlebo network in five cities further expanded the company’s geographic presence.

Presently, we operate in 10 departments and serve in ten cities. The labs are equipped with cutting-edge technologies and offer services ranging from Clinical Biochemistry to Cytogenetics.

We are on our way to establishing a Center of Excellence integrating advanced genomics applications and AI-driven complex analytics for precise, personalised, predictive, and accurate diagnostics.

How does TRUSTlab Diagnostics differentiate itself from other healthcare companies in the market?

Venkata Cherukuri: We are a customer-oriented business. All our systems, procedures and processes, including our work culture, has been developed to work synchronously to serve one goal: providing the best service to our customer.

We do not compromise on test quality by using sub-par practices such as using improper or malfunctioning equipment, underqualified or inexperienced technicians, or the distribution of diagnostic reports in a span of hours, without proper testing or verification. We use the best; we aim for the best.

Can you talk about any new initiatives or projects that TRUSTlab Diagnostics is currently working on?

Venkata Cherukuri: There are several processing labs and collections centres currently planned throughout PAN-INDIA, including but not limited, Patna, Noida, Chandigarh, Lucknow, Indore, etc.

We are also working on expanding our Genetic testing portfolio and associated capabilities. Along with this the company is investing into AI related testing capabilities and digitising the test outcomes for expert opinion.

Our internal R&D team is currently working on developing new test methods in the Microbiology department. In the very near future, we will be establishing our Centre of Excellence within our NRL in Hyderabad.  

What was the inspiration behind turning an entrepreneur?

Venkata Cherukuri: Simply put – “To make a difference”. Look at the world around us today – most of the aspects we take for granted today in our daily life were brought to reality by entrepreneurs.

There are a number of ways a difference can be made in people’s lives – Technology can make a difference (eg. a smart phone), Service can make a difference, Cost can make a difference in what is chosen, etc. In all the businesses I have been involved in I wanted to bring a change to my customers daily routine.

How do you ensure that the services provided by TRUSTlab Diagnostics are accessible and affordable to all?

Venkata Cherukuri: TRUSTlab is committed to extending its Hub & Spoke network model through setting up processing labs and collection centres to all major cities as well as Tier II & Tier III cities across India.

Wherever our physical presence poses a challenge, we will be relying on technology to deliver our services to the customers’ doorstep via our mobile app for home collections.

Customers can get most of the pathology tests done from their homes, at their leisure. Gone are the days where people had to physically go out, and in some cases for miles together, to get their blood tests done.

We now live in an age where food, essentials, and many more services are just a click away and these are delivered to home while we can spend our valuable time with our loved ones. Diagnostics services is no different and we will ensure that our services are just a click away.

The saying “Health is Wealth” is not limited to an individual but also applies to a nation – A healthy nation is a wealthy nation.

To make this a reality, healthcare at large and diagnostics being part of healthcare should be made affordable to all sections of the Indian population.

We at TRUSTlab are committed to making diagnostics services affordable to all. To achieve this, we are using technology to remove inefficiencies, reduce cost and deliver the services straight to the doorstep of our customers at an affordable price tag. 

How do you see the healthcare industry evolving in the next few years, and what role do you see TRUSTlab Diagnostics playing in this evolution?

Venkata Cherukuri: The future of diagnostics is preventive as consumers are much more interested in understanding the data of their own health, and in turn, are driving healthcare and increasing the demand for diagnostics services, personalised and predictive.

This iswhere Genetics is going to play a major role in providing personalised medicine and predicting future health related issues in an individual.

In addition to the above, digitalisation, robotisation and automation are already giving rise to smart laboratories and smart imaging systems that can readily handle the increasing demands from healthcare providers and consumers at greater speed and lower cost.

This dependency on digitalization, robotization and automation is set to increase multifold over the near future which will allow access to the best of the best medical practitioners of the world to harness the power of their expert opinion.

As the healthcare industry embraces more personalized and digital approaches, our focus on Genomics, and increasing capabilities in advanced diagnostic testing will become increasingly valuable.

The lab’s expertise in diagnosing various diseases, including CoViD-19, and its expansion into areas like Flow Cytometry, Cytogenetics & Molecular Pathology demonstrate our commitment to staying at the forefront of preventive, personalised, and predictive medicine.

With a growing network of regional labs and partners, our reach is expanding rapidly, enabling access to cutting-edge diagnostics to across India.

Moreover, the lab’s planned establishment of a Center of Excellence, powered by Artificial Intelligence, digitisation, and automation, will enable the delivery of highly accurate reports and contribute to improved patient outcomes.

In the evolving landscape of healthcare, our collaboration with experienced professionals across various domains will position the lab as a reliable and innovative player in the diagnostic market.

As the industry continues to advance, we will continue to make a significant impact in revolutionizing the way diseases are diagnosed and treated.

What are the targets of TRUSTlab in the coming future? 

Venkata Cherukuri: Geographical expansion and Capability expansion are on the cards over the near-term future. In the very recent past, TRUSTlab has opened processing labs in Visakhapatnam, Anantapur, Gurugram and Jammu.

There are 12 more labs that are slated for opening in North & South India, over the next 9 months. 4 of these, situated at Noida, Patna, Nizamabad and Karimnagar, will be opening in August 2023 & September 2023.

The blueprints for the remaining 8 labs are ready and we are in the initial phase of execution. More such labs are in the pipeline and the expansion will go on.

We are also expanding our existing capacity in the current departments and current labs and further adding new departments such as Cytogenetics to our existing capabilities.

In addition to this, Microbiology where it is imperative to process the sample within a short span from sample collection is also being added into our existing labs. We are also planning to extend our Molecular Pathology department.   

The estimated budget for expansion is around 20cr, which will be utilized in various expansions and equipping the best facilities in the new processing labs.

If we talk about the capability expansion and technological advancements the focus is more on deploying automation, digitalization and probably robotization in future so that early diagnosis and target treatment can be done fast.  

There is an update for the funding, too. We are planning to raise somewhere around 20cr to boost our capability expansion and operational plans.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of starting a healthcare startup?

Venkata Cherukuri: I personally believe that people should understand the industry dynamics before entering the healthcare industry.

Over the past few years, especially after COVID there have been several changes in the industry dynamics, which will continue to evolve over the next few years.

The industry has space for new entrants, provided they mould their business plan to be part of the organized sector, as the industry is set to grow at approximately 12% until 2028. There is a huge vacuum for players to enter the Tier II & Tier III cities.

Two other major observations I have made and believe is that this is one such industry where TRUST must be earned from both Medical Practitioners as well as Patients in order to establish oneself in the industry as a long-term player.

This can be made possible through consistent Quality reporting on a timely basis. Last but not the least, affordability is an important factor to survive in this industry – health of a patient is their wealth not your wealth.

What are your success tips for young and aspiring entrepreneurs?

Venkata Cherukuri: Your passion should drive what you are doing. Being an entrepreneur brings with it quite a number of challenges and times of uncertainty.

In my own journey as an entrepreneur, I have faced (still face) challenges and uncertain situations, it is only my passion towards bringing healthcare within the reach of a common man that has kept my momentum during such times of uncertainty.

To become an entrepreneur and strive to be successful, one should focus more on the meaning of their work and be passionate towards achieving that.

Be creative, be different. Dare to be One out of Hundred, not One in Hundred. Entrepreneurs should not shy away from being creative.

Doing things differently to meet the customer expectation (be it price competitiveness, superior service, innovative product, etc.,) is important to differentiate yourself from the competition, and works as a catalyst to success.

Understanding the market, competition, needs of the customer, etc. are the building blocks to chalk out your differentiation strategy.   

Trust Yourself & Be a Risk taker. Being an entrepreneur is about the Trust in yourself and taking risks in a calculated manner.

I have heard regrets from friends and family (myself included) that, “I should have done that” or “I wish I had taken that risk in the past”.

Most of the times it was because of the fear of the risk involved and the lack of self-confidence. As an entrepreneur, it is important to overcome your fears, trust yourself, your capabilities and your business ideas, as these are key to making a change – Success begins here.

As we conclude this illuminating interview with Venkata Cherukuri, it becomes evident that his relentless pursuit of innovation and dedication to improving healthcare have been the driving forces behind the success of TRUSTlab Diagnostics.

Through his insightful perspectives, we have gained valuable insights into the challenges faced by a healthcare startup and the ways in which innovation can truly transform the industry.

Mr. Cherukuri’s unwavering commitment to providing accessible and accurate diagnostics showcases his passion for improving lives and making a lasting impact on the healthcare landscape.

With leaders like him at the helm, we can undoubtedly look forward to a brighter and healthier future, where TRUSTlab Diagnostics continues to spearhead positive change and touch countless lives in its mission to enhance the quality of healthcare worldwide.

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