Growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Avani Kanubaddi could count seven members of his family, including his father, who were doctors. Instead of becoming a doctor, he jokes, “I became the black sheep.”
Kanubaddi instead pursued a business career in the healthcare field. He split five years between Wyeth Consumer Healthcare and Bristol-Myers Squibb.
In 2005 he struck out on his own and founded Welmedix LLC, a specialty medicines company based at 103 Carnegie Center. Welmedix has already launched two brands and four products, primarily for dermatology and skin care, with many more in the research and development pipeline.
“With seven doctors in the immediate family, it seemed inevitable that I would be drawn into the healthcare field,” says Kanubaddi. “I’ve always had a passion for healthcare and contributing to society. Welmedix allows me to satisfy both.”
Early on, he entertained the idea of becoming a doctor. While an undergraduate student at Miami University in Ohio, Kanubaddi found himself more drawn to business. That was when he decided he would one day start his own healthcare company. He earned a bachelor’s in marketing at Miami in 1994 and an MBA at Columbia in 2002.
Before starting Welmedix, Kanubaddi’s plan called for learning the best practices from the inside of some healthcare industry leaders. During Kanubaddi’s five years at Wyeth and Bristol-Myers Squibb, he worked on or managed more than $500 million in brand value on market-leading healthcare products in base business and new product launch situations.
At Wyeth Consumer Healthcare, the fifth largest over-the-counter health products company in the world, Kanubaddi managed a new product, Centrum Performance, which greatly exceeded expectations when it hit the market.
At Bristol-Myers Squibb, Kanubaddi worked in the ConvaTec division, in general management, brand management, marketing, and sales. At Welmedix, six of the company’s eight employees are based in the Princeton office and are its senior leaders. Welmedix contracts out its manufacturing, sales and other operations, mostly to a company in South Carolina, while its products are clinically tested in India.
Welmedix takes an approach to medicine that embraces both the disciplined and rigorous testing of medicine in the West and the holistic approach to medicine that is common in his family’s homeland of India.
“Medicine is an inexact science,” Kanubaddi says. “In the west, doctors examine an ill patient and determine a prognosis through a process of elimination, ultimately isolating the cause and then treating it. There are often side effects because you can’t isolate and treat one part without compromising the whole.” In the East, however, the approach is to consider a person’s system as a whole when treating an illness.
While Kanubaddi was the initial founder of Welmedix, he soon brought in three co-founders, including several doctors, who share his healthcare philosophy. However, the seven doctors in his family were uncertain at first what to make of his new company.
“They were initially skeptical of what I was trying to do,” Kanubaddi says. “But they’ve come to see that their philosophical approach to medicine and mine were the same and are very supportive. They know that medicines generally come from nature, as do the ingredients in our products. Any good doctor will first say, ‘I want to heal the patient.’ That is what we are trying to do with our company.”
Welmedix devoted its first three years to research and development. Its first product, First-Degree Therapeutic Burn Cream, was launched in October, 2007. First-Degree is an all-in-one burn solution formulated to treat epidermal burns in the home by soothing the pain and helping to prevent the spread of infection and scars.
Last May Welmedix had a breakthrough when Walgreens made the over-the-counter product available at its 7,500 drugstores nationwide. Welmedix first introduced First-Degree through its regional partner, Duane Reade, which operates 250 drugstores in New York, for in-market testing. One Welmedix strategy is to devise eye-catching packaging to help the product stand out on the store shelf.
“Walgreens was a real test,” Kanubaddi says. “They reviewed about 1,500 products and selected only about 150.”
Just before First-Degree made the grade at Walgreens, a horrific earthquake shook Haiti on January 12. Kanubaddi immediately contacted Walgreens to suggest a partnership to rush medical supplies there. “I offered to send several thousand cases of First-Degree and to pay the shipping,” Kanubaddi says. “I learned we shared a commitment about the urgent need to quickly send relief supplies there.”
Walgreens was so impressed with Kanubaddi’s speedy offer, it accepted the cases of First-Degree and flew them together with their own relief supplies to Haiti.
“We have been donating to good causes since the word go,” he says. “We are looking to be first responders to crises that occur around the United States and the world.”
Kanubaddi is also in the process of creating the Akshay Foundation, a nonprofit charitable organization focused on initiatives in healthcare and education. “The foundation is an integral component of the larger mission of Welmedix and its founders,” he says.
The company’s second product, SunBurnt Therapeutic After Sun Relief, was released in December, 2008, through Duane Reade’s drugstores for test marketing. It is formulated to cool overheated skin, soothe and hydrate sunburned skin, and reduce peeling.
“We have to do our research in creating and marketing our products,” Kanubaddi says. “Consumers vote every day over your products.”
And they are increasingly voting for complementary and alternative medicines, such as homeopathy and Eastern medicine. This increase seems to match a similar rise in dissatisfaction among consumers with conventional approaches to treating disease.
According to the National Institutes of Health, Americans spend about $34 billion each year on unconventional medicine. In addition, 55 percent believe that a combination of conventional and complementary treatments can better meet their healthcare needs than conventional treatments alone.
Though about half of the Welmedix’s senior leaders are from India, Kanubaddi says it’s just a coincidence. “When creating my leadership team, I was looking for people who shared my views about healthcare — one that is true to the heritage of Eastern medicine while meeting the exacting standards of Western medicine,” he says.
Kanubaddi emphasizes that “Welmedix products must meet the strict testing standards of the FDA.” The plan at Welmedix is to first focus on launching over-the-counter products, which take less time to develop than prescription medication. “We plan to release one product regionally and one nationally each year,” Kanubaddi says. “We are developing and marketing holistic products for underserved consumer needs.”
As these products are released and begin to generate greater cash-flow, Welmedix will focus more of its research and development on medicines to treat serious, chronic health issues, such as diabetes, asthma, and elder care, he says.
Though Kanubaddi’s heritage is in India, he grew up in the United States. He was 5 when his father moved his family to the midwest so he could begin his residency in Chicago.
Kanubaddi and his family moved to Princeton a few years ago, when he took a job with Bristol-Myers Squibb. His wife is an asset manager at BlackRock, the global investment management firm on Scudders Mill Road. They have a two-year-old daughter and a second child is expected.
“Family is extremely important to me,” he says. “And Princeton is a great location for our family and our business. We’re between New York and Philadelphia, and close to major airports and seaports. You have Princeton University, which attracts a great deal of diversity and culture that is hard to find in a town this size. We fell in love with Princeton. It’s a magical place.”
Welmedix, 103 Carnegie Center, Suite 200, Princeton 08540; 609-799-5025; fax, 609-799-5024. Avani V. Kanubaddi, president. www.welmedix.com.