Novartis and Google Team up for “Autofocus” Eye Lens

Edited by Vani Rao

Lens to have non-invasive sensors to monitor insulin levels

In a follow up to our story on how tech companies are exploring opportunities in smart wearable devices, Novartis AG (NYSE:NVS) and Google Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOG) have teamed up to work on a smart lens that monitors blood-sugar levels in diabetic patients through a minimally invasive method. Novartis’s Alcon unit will work with Google’s Google X division to develop lenses with non-invasive sensors, microchips, and embedded miniaturized electronics to monitor insulin levels. More importantly, for people with presbyopia who can no longer read without glasses, the smart lens has the potential to provide accommodative vision correction with its “autofocus” features as part of refractive cataract treatment, Basel-based Novartis stated on Tuesday, July 15, 2014.

Novartis expects to release the first prototypes by early 2015 and may start marketing the products in about five years, according to Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez. Novartis will be responsible for the marketing and commercialization of the smart lens. Novartis has identified eye care as one of three key divisions, along with branded and generic drugs. To this effect, it has announced a $28.5-billion restructuring plan in April 2014 that involved selling off the vaccines and animal-health units and buying GlaxoSmithKline Plc’s (NYSE:GSK) cancer business.

Source: Google
Source: Google

Novartis, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, said that its Alcon eye-care division would start off by licensing the smart lens technology designed by Google. The smart lens prototype, which Google unveiled in January, is part of Google’s growing number of wearable technology and software products used to monitor health and fitness. The prototype contains an electronic sensor and a microchip to transmit data to mobile phones.

At the Google I/O Developers Conference on June 25, 2014, in San Francisco, California, Google announced its much anticipated expansion into health-tracking wearables. Last month, Google debuted its Google Fit platform to track health metrics, such as sleep and exercise, on devices running its Android mobile operating system.

For Novartis, the move towards wearable health technology such as the smart lens is part of a broader game plan to enable people to take charge and manage their own health. Moreover, the technology has the potential to lower the cost of managing chronic eye diseases and address the unmet medical care needs of eye care patients globally.

BC2For Google, joining hands with Novartis will help it to commercialize and bring to the market various emerging technologies being developed at the company’s skunkworks unit. Earlier, Google partnered with Luxottica Group and VSP Global to bring its Google Glass web-connected eyewear to the market. However, the innovative product did not take off as expected owing to privacy concerns.

The deal with Novartis is a win-win situation for both companies because of Novartis’s huge presence in the eye-care market through its Alcon unit. Alcon, Novartis’s second-largest business, posted net sales of $10.5 billion in 2013, about a fifth of overall net sales. On the other hand, for Google, marrying its microchip-based technology with that of a contact lens can now be possible through Alcon leadership in making contact lenses.

Diabetics market offers huge growth potential for non-invasive devices

According to the American Diabetes Association, about 29 million Americans suffer from diabetes, which cost the US economy some $245 billion in 2012, a 41% rise in five years. For detecting and monitoring blood glucose on a daily basis, diabetics have to prick their fingers as much as 10 times per day. Hence, many diabetics prefer non-invasive technology to detect and monitor glucose levels. It is estimated that the global blood-sugar tracking market would be worth over $12 billion by 2017. Sensing the huge market potential, major technology companies like Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL), and Samsung Electronics Co. are considering incorporating glucose monitoring features into wearable computing devices. Tech companies are now conducting R&D to crack the code to incorporate blood glucose data into health apps that enables the collection and quick testing of complex data from daily life. These devices will be targeted mainly at athletes and health-conscious users.

On the other hand, consumers are adopting technology like never before. This is mainly made possible by the convergence of telecom, IT, and internet-based applications, which has become an essential part of the day-to-day life of individual users. While other companies have failed in their attempts at accurate non-invasive glucose measurement due to body movement and fluctuations in hydration and temperature, it remains to be seen whether Google’s revolutionary smart lens will find takers in today’s tech-dominated world.

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