As early as 2007, smart contact lenses had already caught the interest of medical and academic institutions. Sensimed, a Swiss medical device company, developed a contact lens with embedded electronics that could monitor intraocular pressure continuously and non-invasively, as a measure of a patient’s blood glucose level. Academic institutions such as the École Polytechnique Fédérale De Lausanne are following suit.
Developing smart contact lenses requires niche expertise from various disciplines, and thus was an unexplored area for contact lens manufacturers until 2014. In July 2014, Novartis joined hands with Google to develop both a glucose-detecting contact lens and one with auto focus functions for those with presbyopia. Other participants joining in the fray include contact lenses manufacturers, namely The Cooper Companies and Johnson & Johnson. In the past few months, Johnson & Johnson has been filing patents for developing smart contact lens, the most notable of which details a “removable media insert” in hydrogel lenses. This indicates a possible desire to bring down the cost of smart disposable lenses, which is necessary if Johnson and Johnson decides to market the smart lenses in consumer retail.
A new playing field
Novartis, the second largest contact lenses player globally, has consistently been trailing Johnson & Johnson in the contact lenses industry by an average of 15 percentage points. Thus, riding the new wave of innovation is critical for Novartis to gain further momentum in order to take the lead. As compared to Johnson & Johnson, Novartis is a stronger contestant in this new space of smart contact lenses, as it is much more focused on vision care, has niche expertise in ophthalmic surgical and pharmaceuticals, as well as support from Google to boot.
For smaller contact lenses players, category expansion brings new avenues for growth in the maturing contact lens industry characterised by price competition and little product differentiation. Gaining relevant expertise via business partnerships (Novartis-Google collaboration) and acquisitions (Johnson & Johnson acquiring Alios BioPharma) could also open new doors for smaller players into biomedical and technology industries. New categories can be strong revenue contributors should they work out.
Exciting prospects in a distant future
With electronics embedded within contact lenses, there is a dizzying array of possibilities waiting to be explored – from health monitoring, drug delivery, creating an augmented reality device and an immersive video gaming experience, to a military device for security and defence. With the numerous possible applications of smart contact lens, it is also a way for contact lens manufacturers in consumer retail to establish themselves as the most desirable of things: a lifestyle brand.
However, issues regarding the infringement of privacy will be more pronounced, as contact lenses with cameras potentially embedded in them will be less noticeable than smart glasses. Due to these concerns, it is more likely that smart contact lenses will take off first and foremost for enterprise use.
The concept of smart contact lenses, or even smart glasses (which is seeing growing interest), is still in its early stages. An analyst survey conducted by Euromonitor International in May 2014 indicated that only 15% of respondents have seen consumers in their countries wear smart glasses, although such products have been around for a while. That said, while the concept of smart contact lenses is relatively ahead of its time, they present great opportunities for the future. Thus, it is precisely this moment when industry players such as Bausch & Lomb have to act proactively – either to try and scale the steep learning curve, or prepare to defend against what may emerge as the next big thing in contact lenses.