Are New Products Really Modernising Contact Lenses?

The last revolutionary advances in contact lenses were the use of silicone hydrogels for manufacturing in 1999 and the launch of the first progressive daily disposable lens in 2000. However, the increased willingness of external electronics and technology players to enter eyewear poses a threat which could accelerate product innovation. Here, we discuss the current state of new product development in contact lenses, which is dependent on cosmetics and technology.

Cosmetic Lenses Assuming Greater Emphasis

As discussed in the podcast ‘Circle Lenses Drive Demand for Contacts in Asia’, circle and coloured lenses are among the primary drivers of contact lens sales in Asia Pacific. New patterns, colours and collections have been making inroads in the portfolios of most global brands. In 2013, Bausch & Lomb added a new cosmetic lens collection, Naturelle, in order to compete with CIBA Vision Freshlook and Acuvue Define. In addition, consistent growth in the region has invited local manufacturers to position products which are cheaper than those offered by global leaders such as Acuvue and CIBA Vision.

However, associated concerns about consumer safety and counterfeit products are likely to pose a threat to the rise of cosmetic lenses. A case in point is South Korea’s ban on the internet retailing of contact lenses in 2012. Although the increasing involvement of national health authorities is expected to slow the ascent of local cosmetic lens brands, it presents global brands with a new growth opportunity in Asia. In addition to South Korea, other substantial Asia Pacific markets such as Japan, China and Taiwan will help shape the global competitive landscape for contact lenses over 2014-2018.

Limited Role of Technology

There are two distinct technological innovations which could have a long-term impact on contact lenses. In July 2013, researchers at the University of California, San Diego and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) unveiled the development of contact lenses which allow vision to be magnified by nearly three times. In order to achieve the magnification, the contact lenses have to be paired with a pair of specialised spectacles. Apart from military applications, the product could prove invaluable to middle-aged and elderly consumers who face age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Although the prototype is complete, additional research is required to improve the lenses’ gas permeability and make them suitable for everyday wear.

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Source: Google official blog

In addition, Google announced its first version of ‘smart’ contact lenses on 16 January 2014. The prototype is designed exclusively for diabetes patients, and automatically takes glucose level readings once every second. This provides a quick and painless alternative to the current method of testing through blood drops. Although there are talks of Google integrating some of its Google Glass functions into the smart contact lens, this seems highly unlikely in the next few years due to the nascent stage of its contact lens development.

No Revolution Coming Just Yet

Most contact lens innovations seen in 2013 and 2014 are either riding on consumer preferences within existing categories (eg cosmetic lenses) or are a few years from being launched for retail sales (eg Google contact lenses). They are also based on providing options to specific consumers rather than disrupting the wider industry.

This trend is likely to continue over the 2014-2018 period, when soft lens materials will be the focus for manufacturers. As such, any major breakthrough which simplifies the contact lens wearing process or radically increases eye comfort will bring immediate returns for the manufacturer involved. With respect to revolutionary technologies, any new concept is expected to involve collaboration with one of the dominant players – Johnson & Johnson, Novartis, Bausch & Lomb or The Cooper Cos – in order to utilise their medical expertise and reach the global consumer.