Ottawa startup eyes breakthrough for vision-impaired clients

A new startup founded by entrepreneurs in Ottawa and scientists in Australia sees huge potential in its technology that would restore sight to people with blindness using diamonds and lasers.

The company, iBIONICS, is developing a bionic eye system to restore vision in people with retinal degenerative diseases using a diamond retinal implant and laser-beam glasses. The firm’s founders believe the business will eventually take in revenues of a half-billion dollars per year.

Before that, they’ll have to raise at least $100 million to commercialize the product and market it globally. That number may be high, but the firm’s founders say that in the biotechnology industry – in which Sydney-based Cochlear is nearing $1 billion in annual revenues from its own implants for hearing restoration – it’s quite feasible. 

The new startup is indeed directly inspired by Cochlear, which was named one of the world’s most innovative companies by Forbes in 2011 and has used its technology to restore hearing in more than 300,000 deaf patients since 1981.

“The challenge that we thought we’d undertake was to see if we could do for eyes what they had already done for ears,” says Steven Prawer, a Melbourne-based scientist who conceived the idea for iBIONICS and, after meeting with tech expert Michel Pigeon while visiting Ottawa, co-founded the company with him and Suzanne Grant, a successful local entrepreneur who was recruited as CEO. 

Here’s how it works: the person wears a pair of glasses equipped with a small camera that captures the image data. The glasses send that information via a laser beam to the diamond implant at the back of the eye, which then converts the data into electric signals that artificially stimulate the retina.

“The technology is almost perfect,” says Mr. Pigeon, the startup’s COO. “It has all these beautiful properties, and the technology is really disruptive … If you have something that’s highly differentiated and best-in-class, then you know you have something big.”

In Canada alone, about 500,000 people live with significant vision loss, and every year another 50,000 or more lose their sight, according to the CNIB. Vision loss costs the Canadian health-care system an estimated $8.6 billion a year and results in billions more in indirect costs such as lost productivity, the organization has noted.

“Our goal isn’t just to alleviate the pain of blindness, it’s also to have a product that’s so cost-effective that it actually saves society money,” says Dr. Prawer.

The company’s main competitor, Second Sight, has paved the way by proving that people can get some form of vision back using eye implants, says Dr. Prawer. But the current technology requires a long and complicated surgery and does not have a high level of acuity, he says. 

His company has been consulting with Dr. Flavio Rezende, a Montreal surgeon who has garnered attention for his work with existing “bionic eye” technology. The firm says its product will be quicker in surgery, achieve a much higher resolution and also be safer and cheaper than what’s currently on the market. 

These days, the company is in the process of optimizing the product’s design and is conducting pre-clinical trials of the surgical technique in Montreal. After plenty more development and testing, iBIONICS hopes to reach the in-human clinical trial stage within 24 months. Beyond that, it would need product approvals. 

“We’re looking at coming onto the market in five years,” says Ms. Grant.

To get to market, the company will need about $50 million in funding, she says, while the total estimated $100 million will get the firm to the point where it’s operating at a global scale. After the first five years on the market – the product would sell for roughly $75,000 per unit, though those are early estimates – the company projects revenues of $500 million per year.

“Our focus is on helping blind people – that’s our mission, that’s our vision,” says Ms. Grant. “At the same time, that’s not possible without having a really good business model and investment model. And there’s a really good return-on-investment opportunity here.”

While the firm is still a few years away from emerging on the market, Ms. Grant says she believes iBIONICS is part of an emerging sector of the health industry that has tremendous potential.

“The big hype about wearables two years ago is what we’re coming upon with implantables,” she says. “We’re just at the cusp. And, this is an opportunity for Canada to step up and to be delivering innovation, solutions and new business to the world.”