Alcon teaming with Google to develop smart contact lens

07/15/2014 11:52 AM

07/15/2014 11:53 AM

Fort Worth-based Alcon and technology giant Google are teaming up to develop smart contact lenses with embedded electronics to improve vision and monitor health.

Alcon, a unit of the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis, will license technology from Google’s secretive Google X division for lenses with noninvasive sensors, microchips and embedded miniaturized electronics. The smart contact lenses could monitor insulin levels for diabetics or restore the eye’s natural focus for people who can no longer read without glasses, Novartis said in a statement. No terms of the deal were disclosed.

Novartis expects to get the first prototypes by early next year and may start marketing the products in about five years, CEO Joe Jimenez said in an interview.

Information about blood sugar levels, which is particularly useful for people with diabetes, could be uploaded to smartphones and used by doctors and patients to monitor the data almost in real time, according to a statement Google issued when it released its prototype in January.

“The promise here is the holy grail of vision care, to be able to replicate the natural functioning of the eye,” Jimenez said. “Think about a contact lens that could help the eye autofocus on that newspaper and then when you look up it would autofocus in the distance.”

Jimenez said that Novartis will be responsible for marketing and commercializing the products and that both companies will benefit financially, without being more specific. Novartis will commit “a significant effort” to developing the lenses to speed their development, he said.

Jimenez said Novartis tried for years to develop a lens that would replicate the function of the eye and held talks with Google X’s Andrew Conrad in Basel shortly after Google said in January that it was developing smart contacts. That announcement came after Bloomberg News reported that Google had met with officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration who oversee medical devices.

Alcon, a longtime leader in pharmaceuticals and surgical equipment for eye care, became a big player in contacts when Novartis acquired it in 2011. Novartis folded its eye-care units into Alcon, including the Ciba Vision contact lens business.

Alcon, the second-largest division within Novartis, has about 4,500 employees in Fort Worth. Novartis recently announced plans to build a $35 million data center at the Alcon campus in south Fort Worth.

Conrad joined Google X last year. He is a former chief scientist at Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings and co-founder of its National Genetics Institute.

“Our dream is to use the latest technology in the miniaturization of electronics to help the quality of life for millions of people,” Google co-founder Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, said Tuesday in the statement.

Jimenez said technology will become more important in pharmaceuticals as patients take a more active role in their own health. Novartis is looking at ways to bring technology to other areas of healthcare, he said, declining to be more specific.

“Some of our biggest healthcare issues that we will face over the next 10 years are going to be solved by bringing together high technology with biology,” he said. “More and more health issues will be addressed in a nontraditional approach like this.”

The push to develop medical technology comes as several of the largest technology companies are looking for new areas for growth. Analysts say the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors are crucial targets as people take greater control of their own medical treatment.

Brin said Google’s smart lens technology could “help improve the quality of life for millions of people.”

This report includes material from The New York Times and the Star-Telegram archives.

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