Entrepreneur for a Cause - Vikram Vupalla

He gave up the American dream to make his vision come true in India. Vikram Vupalla started NephroPlus, a chain of premium dialysis centres, after spending over 12 years honing his educational and professional skills in the U.S. Having an abundance of experience in the global healthcare industry, Vikram is redefining healthcare delivery in India.

Prior to founding NephroPlus, Vikram was a strategy consultant at McKinsey & Company in their New Jersey office. He was also a business management associate at ZS Associates – a worldwide leader in sales force management consulting. Currently, he is also the founder of Abbott Laboratories, which helps key management address various strategic and sales force management issues.

Tell us something about yourself.
I was born and brought up in Hyderabad and spent almost 17 years in the city prior to pursuing a course in chemical engineering from IIT. I then went to the US to pursue my Master’s at the University of Illinois and worked at a couple of healthcare firms for a bit before going to the University of Chicago Booth School of Business for an MBA program.

How did you get into healthcare?
After spending a few years in strategy consulting at McKinsey, I decided to move back to India. I had always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but just wasn’t sure in what space. The MBA gave me the skills to start my business. I looked into the diabetes and hypertension ecosystem because India has 70 million diabetic and 100 million hypertension patients. I travelled around the country and researched the topic extensively. It was then that I met an interesting dialysis patient, Kamal Shah, who later turned out to be one of the three co-founders of NephroPlus.

The dialysis system in the country was broken; there was no standardised care or patient-centric care. Having a patient as a co-founder was extremely beneficial, since understanding the customer perspective would be crystal clear. Shortly, a third co-founder–Sandeep, who was a student at ISB at that time, joined us.

How has the company expanded?
Our first branch was in Banjara Hills, near Lotus Pond, the second was in Secunderabad, and from there on things exploded. It was a great learning experience. We got 25 crores worth of private equity funding from Bessemer Venture Partners – a renowned Silicon Valley venture capital firm, five years ago. We then grew in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and ventured into North India, especially in UP. We signed an exclusive deal with Max Health Care and expanded to 18 centres. Two and a half years ago World Bank invested in us and thus we continued to expand. We got another 100 crores Series C funding six months ago. We are one of the few Hyderabad-based companies which have had three rounds of funding.

Was it an easy decision to leave the States and return to India?
Right from my IIT days, I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. Figuring out how and in what space was important, and it took me some time to figure out my passion. My interest was always in healthcare, but I had to figure out what in healthcare I wanted to do. My aim was to get the best education and work experience in the US and then move back to India. I didn’t want anything binding me to staying back in America. To give you an idea, I never bought a home in the US, because then one gets attached and stuck. In my last three years there I didn’t even buy a car. I didn’t want to be bound to material possessions. Entrepreneurship in India was always the plan.

The easier option might have been to stay back in the States, but it’s nice to see you took the more difficult but, probably more satisfying route.
My return was mostly for personal reasons – I’m the only son of my parents and my sister is settled in the US I wanted to be closer to home so I can take care of my parents. The US never felt like home... I always felt that India needed a lot of innovation and new healthcare delivery formats. There is a lot of opportunity here in India, but of course it’s not easy to get things done.
During my tenure in IIT, the tuition fee was Rs. 1,000 a year, which was heavily subsided by the government. I always felt that if I generate jobs in India it would be one way of giving back to society.

There was almost a guilt factor involved.
We now have 1,700 employees and 108 dialysis centres across the country. I feel very good about generating employment to so many families’ bread-winners.

How’s the work culture in India compared to the US?
If people want an easier life, it’s in the U.S. But in India if you crack the code, opportunity is huge. There’s always something going on here, whereas the US can get monotonous after a while. Life in India is very different from the US, but India can offer a whole range of luxuries that no amount of money in the U.S. can buy – like the family support system that is so ingrained in India and our culture.
If you embrace India and enjoy the services and support it offers, it’s great. The mindset to enjoy the country once you move back from the US is very important. India is not meant to be ‘tried’ out; instead one needs to embrace the positives.

Is NephroPlus affordable to the average person?
It’s a dialysis service where patients with kidney problems come thrice a week for four hours per treatment. So they are spending 14-15 hours a month at the centre. The pricing is 30-40% lower than corporate hospitals because of our scale. We have our own training academies across the country where we create our own talent, so we are able to offer affordable care. That doesn’t mean we are the cheapest in the country, but for quality you need to be able to afford a certain standard and cost. We have partnered with some governments like Andhra Pradesh and Uttarakhand where we run centres in government hospitals, so the treatment is free for patients and the government pays the cost. It is a great way to reach poor people whocan’t afford ourservices.

What is the most rewarding part of being an entrepreneur?
When we see our patients getting quality care and their lives improving, it really gives us an emotional boost. Every day we are saving lives and creating career opportunities for so many people across the country. We add 50-70 people to our teams every month. All this is hugely satisfying. The best learning is that with the right values, the sky is the limit in terms of growth.

What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?
Passion and purpose are the most important ingredients to being a successful entrepreneur. These days there’s lot of romance around start-ups. It’s almost glamorous to be an entrepreneur. But in reality entrepreneurship is very hard, unless there is a core purpose of solving serious problems. The froth around it, like marketing and PR, is temporary. What is permanent is the impact you’re going to make.

What are your other interests?
One serious hobby is travelling internationally. I’ve been doing it for the past 15 years. Taking time out every year is important because travellingis a great way to broaden your mindset and thinking. It has really helped in terms of being more aware of what goes around in the world. My wife and I do it as much as we can with our young kids. I also like mentoring other start-ups in India. I have five mentees who I talk to once in two weeks to help them out.

Thirdly, I take my kids to various places in and beyond Hyderabad to give them the exposure required to grow into global citizens.     – as told to Suneela