Diabetes and a dose of deja vuThe recent announcement that Google has struck a deal with Novartis to jointly develop “smart” contact lenses for diabetics has generated a lot of excitement. Google’s smart lens is designed to help diabetics track their blood sugar levels by measuring glucose in eye fluid and communicating the data to a mobile device.
Under its licensing deal with Google, Novartis will develop and commercialise the lenses through its Alcon eyecare division based in Texas. Joe Jimenez, Novartis chief executive, apparently told the Financial Times he would be “disappointed” if the first lens was not ready for commercialisation within five years.
However, for me the news generated a distinct sense of déjà vu. Back in 2001 I worked with Prof Chris Lowe of the Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Cambridge to commercialise his research relating to sensor holograms. One of Chris’ many bright ideas was to develop a glucose sensor based on a hologram that could be placed on a contact lens in order to measure glucose in eye fluid. The clinical utility was based on the fact that glucose levels in eye fluid are in equilibrium with those in blood, and therefore the technology could be used as a non-invasive method for diabetics to measure their blood glucose levels continuously.
Following demonstration of feasibility we founded Smart Holograms Ltd in 2002 and raised seed funding to develop the “smart” contact lens technology. Part of the seed funding came from a commercial deal with CIBA Vision, a subsidiary of Novartis, who took a licence to the “smart” contact lens technology. Subsequently Smart Holograms raised over £10 million of funding but the “smart” contact lens project ran into technical difficulties and the collaboration with CIBA Vision was eventually discontinued.
It’s fascinating for me then to see Novartis revisiting “smart” contact lenses for diabetics a decade after the first attempt. The technical challenges will still be there but the Novartis/Google partnership certainly has the financial resources to take them on, as reflected in the bullish statement by the Novartis CEO.
In a wider context the announcement is an example of a new way of delivering healthcare innovation through a combination of biology and technology. For example, Novartis said the biggest prize from Google’s technology could be an “autofocusing” lens for the 1.7bn people around the world who struggle to see nearby objects clearly.
For Google, the alliance marks another step into the world of digital health as it vies with Apple and Samsung to develop mobile platforms that harness the growing array of apps and wearable devices that monitor everything from sleep patterns to fertility cycles. Novartis has predicted the market for wearable health devices could be worth $10bn-$50bn within the next decade.
Amazon is another player in this space and it is intriguing that on the same day that the Google Novartis deal was announced it was reported that Amazon has poached Babak Parviz, who was the brain behind the Google’s “smart contact lenses” and led the development team on Google’s high-tech spectacles. Amazon continues to expand its business far beyond online retailing, spending nearly $6.6bn on research and development in 2013.