Taro Suzuki explains discusses some of Universal View’s groundbreaking technologies, such as its ‘pinhole’ contact lens and smart contact lens, and wants international partners to help bring its innovative products to the enormous potential global market.
Can you tell us more about the origins of Universal View?
Universal View’s objective is to eliminate the use of glasses. Did you know that 83% of the information we absorb comes from our vision? The remaining 17% represents all the other senses: hearing, taste, touch and smell. Our vision represents the greatest proportion of how we understand the world. As the most crucial sense available to humans, our goal is to create innovative ways to enhance our eyesight.
No matter how much technology continues to advance through the rise of virtual reality goggles or mixed reality, and no matter how the speed of the internet may increase, there still exists a time lag between whatever we're looking at and our brains. At Universal View, we want to reduce that time lag and create innovations that will enable us to facilitate comprehension and human understanding.
While we can't introduce our smart contact lenses right away, some of our products, such as our orthokeratology lenses, were approved by the PMDA in 2012 and is now handled in 330 clinics nationwide.
No matter how complex our technology gets, we cannot distribute our products when there's nothing to be gained. To enhance our distribution we enable clinics to better understand the product, identify potential consumers, and match them with the best solutions for their eyes. We've also created an application where you input some information about the consumer's eyes and it'll give you an understanding of the shape and what would be most suitable for them within seconds.
Not only do we aim to distribute our products, but also the software that goes with them to help with enhancing diagnosis and prescription. We cannot yet create a 3D model, but we've created software that can be inputted into whatever device is readily available.This program can be utilised without having to invest more capital into machinery and hardware.
The most important is to assist doctors in lens prescription. This is not just limited to doctors, but also to regular people so that they can make prescriptions for themselves. In Japan, as you're already aware, there's a high level of regulations when it comes to advertising medical products or drugs. As it is difficult for us to advertise to consumers, we focus on marketing our products to specialists directly. In order to break through that difficult barrier, our major shareholder is Dentsu. Through Dentsu, we've taken a strategy of not necessarily advertising the product directly, but instead advertising and increasing the visibility of the style of diagnosis.
It's a kind of peer strategy where I can go onto the news and discuss the orthokeratology system of diagnosis and prescription. With Dentsu, we're really striving to increase awareness and understanding of this style of prescription.
What is orthokeratology and what advantages does it bring in comparison to more traditional methods like surgery?
It is targeted towards myopic patients. In order to correct their vision, consumers have three choices: wearing glasses, laser surgery or contact lenses. We're providing orthokeratology as the fourth option. The main advantage of orthokeratological lenses is that you were them during the night and remove them during the day where you can see with correct eyesight despite having no lenses on.
What happens to people with myopia is that their focal point is limited. To see, they must stretch that focal point to the end of the retina and change its shape. What the orthokeratology lens does is that when you wear it at night, it already pulls the focal point to the end and changes the shape of it so that in the day, when you remove the lens, your eye will already have been corrected during the night. If you were to skip wearing it at night, it will go back to its regular shape. It is not as permanent or committing as laser surgery.
Furthermore, you can only do laser surgery if you're 18 or above, so it doesn't solve the issue of myopia for children. Children with myopia are on the rise and our target for these lenses are children. Parents can use it in the same way we ask kids whether they've brushed their teeth at night. Before the kids go off to school, they can remove their lenses and just run around, do sports, and study without anything in their eyes.
Do you commercialise this in the sports world as well?
We are targeting the sports world but not systematically. We're mostly just increasing the visibility of this technology at the moment. From a global scale, 30% of elementary school children wear glasses and require some sort of corrective lenses. In Junior High School, this percentage increases to 55% and for High Schoolers, over 63% of students require some sort of corrective lenses. Asians are particularly prone to myopia. When it comes to Americans, the ratio of the population that suffer from myopia is less than one third. By 2050, there will be 470 million people suffering from myopia.
The rise of digital technology and smartphones is increasing the amount of screens present in our daily lives and the amount of myopic children will go up. We want to create 'Made in Japan' products that can enter the global market and provide a solution to this issue.
Has your international strategy started already, and could you tell us more about the key niches and markets you are targeting?
We're working with Toray Industries to expand globally. Universal View is an innovation venture, meaning we don't have any capital. When it comes to small start-ups like us, our strategy is to partner with larger Japanese firms and wisely utilise them to increase our brand recognition overseas. We are currently looking at Asian markets and China in particular to expand. We started exporting to Hong Kong in 2017, and this year, we exported to Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. Because we're exporting medical equipment, we need to make sure that we fulfil the regulations set by each country.
You plan to introduce smartcontact lenses by 2024. Could you explain more about it in depth and what possibilities it opens up for humans?
There are still various issues and problems we need to address. One of them is that through smart contact lenses, not only do we connect vision with technology, but we also need to improve the vision people have. As a precursor to that, we are introducing a pinhole contact lens by 2020. Through this pinhole technology, you can not only correct myopia but also astigmatism.
If you look through this pinhole, you can see things more clearly. Whereas normal contact lenses enhance the depth of focus, this pinhole technology actually deepens it, effectively allowing you to see better. There are more than 150 different types of traditional contact lenses, and consumers waste a lot time analysing which one works best. Traditional lenses take a long time to prescribe and finding the most suited one is a lengthy project.
When it comes to pinhole technology however, there is only one design and it fits almost everyone suffering from myopia or close-sightedness. It is scheduled to enter the market in 2020. Once we gain approval in Japan, we will partner with global firms to penetrate overseas markets at once.
You mentioned before that there are a lot of people that hate you for this. Could you tell me more?
Our company’s motto is to eliminate glasses from the world. This pinhole contact lens will help Japan’s aging populating. As you age, you lose your vision, and there are no contact lenses designed to help you as you get older. When it comes to the large players in the market such as Johnson and Johnson, they don't have any designs targeting the aging population. Since we are creating a whole new market, we have no direct competitors.
These lenses are useful for the elderly and for developing countries. With the diversity in design and the lengthy prescription process, contact lenses are a hurdle for developing countries. However, this pinhole contact lens only comes in four different types. One out of four will work for you, rather than one out of 150! Furthermore, it has the ability to correct all kind of defects, naturally reducing storage requirement and prescription time. This type of innovation is in line with fact that developing nations never transitioned from landlines to mobile phones. Their first portable device connected to the internet was smartphones.
Universal View represents Japan’s creative capability. We are part of Abenomics’ revitalisation strategy for the medical and pharmaceutical works. Thanks to our close relationship with AMED (Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development), we are insured that the different stages of our products’ development receives the right funds and public capital. Not only will we receive governmental support, but we will also gain intellectual property rights.
How do you plan to differentiate yourself from future competitors?
Rather than competing, our strategy is to welcome larger companies such as Seed or Toray as major shareholders. We want our team to be composed of these companies, including the Innovation Network Corporation of Japan, which is a Japanese Government Fund. By including private and public organizations as part of our shareholding structure, we can push our venture project regardless of competition.
What will be the usage of the smart contact lenses?
The pinhole contact lens will be an introduction to the smart contact lens. The smart contacts lens will be a combination of pinhole technology and connectivity. When it comes to smart contacts lenses, we can cater to two bases: the healthcare industry and the entertainment industry. For the healthcare industry, our technology will work similarly to Google’s connected lens. Tears are used to measure blood sugar levels and glucose for diabetic patients. When such patients are using the contact lens, the data collected is sent to medical facilities to help facilitate the treatment of their diabetes. Such a collection of data is one way that this lens can be utilised.
For the entertainment sector, as you put the lenses on, you'll be able to see various things. As the technology continues to advance, it will be used for reading e-mails, playing video games, or reading the pulse of marathon runners. It will be similar to how people use smart watches now. We will see that technology in the next 10 to 30 years.
When it comes to smart phones and smart watches, your eyes still need to look at the screen and process the information. There's a lag that happens between the device and your eyes. What happens if there's no lag between that? Right away, the information goes directly to your brain. That is possible through this smart lens technology. Our project is looking into all the related fields that have to do with this technological development. We're partnering with various academic and research institutions as well as firms that are providing safe resources and equipment. As the device will go directly into human eyes, we must be extremely careful as to the level of safety required.
We're also working with various IT companies. We have adopted an open innovative platform and structure in order to make this happen. The most important element when using this technology is electricity.
When it comes to the healthcare industry, we can utilise the smartphone technology that's, for example, used in Apple Pay. When it comes to certain elements such as medical devices, all you have to do is put your phone to your eye and the information will be processed. When it comes to entertainment however, a larger amount of information will be transmitted to your eyes.
Therefore, we need to invent a wireless technology that goes directly to the contact lens. In a sense, we want to be a firm that's not pushing one product. Rather, we want to be a firm that creates a new standard and a new global platform where all kinds of technologies are combined to produce anext generation product. What we're imagining is that we'll be able to provide 90% of the product through this platform, and the last 10% would be diversified. We'd bring on-board various firms that would be interested in making the lens specifically for a certain usage, such as measuring glucose, so they'd add a glucose sensor. Or maybe it's required to measure the air, so there'd be an air sensor, or detect viruses, or act as a drug delivery system. Once the base technology is developed, the possibilities will become endless.