Orthokeratology lenses are seen as one of the best solutions to the issue and Japanese company Alpha Corporation Inc., a member of the Menicon Group, is among the companies leading development in the field.
In recent decades, Japan has seen the rise of regional manufacturing competitors who have been able to replicate Japanese monozukuri processes, but at cheaper labor costs, pushing Japan out of mass markets. However, we see that many Japanese firms are leaders in the medical field. As Japan’s leading manufacturer of orthokeratology lenses, how have Japanese firms maintained this leadership in the medical field despite the stiff price competition?
Like other Japanese companies, we need to think about how we can compete in the global marketplace with our innovations. Even though there are significantly larger markets such as the U.S. and Europe, we believe that the main battleground for us is the Chinese market. Many manufacturers are trying to catch up with the big players in these markets. What has made our company what it is today are the local doctors and distributors who have spread our products in the Chinese market and our "pursuit of quality," which has been our desire since the time of our founding. Of course, the role of a manufacturer is to develop new products and provide better products and services, but I believe that it is "quality and technology" that has made our company what it is today. The "pursuit of quality" must never be neglected in the face of efficiency and productivity. In order for us to maintain and improve our competitiveness in the global market, it is necessary for the entire company and all manufacturing bases to have the same "ability to create quality".
But they are almost catching up with our made in Japan brands and the quality of Japanese manufacturing. They may even surpass Japanese companies. Nevertheless, we cannot afford to lose to such companies in terms of innovation. Therefore, we always have a sense of crisis when competing in the global market. It is important for us to continue to carry on the value of Made in Japan and Japanese craftsmanship and maintain a high level of quality.
Myopia is a condition in which one can focus on nearby objects, but distant objects appear blurry. Currently, we are undergoing an epidemic of this condition and it is estimated that by 2050, myopia will affect half of the global population, and today, over 80% of teens are estimated to be myopic in East Asia. Why are we seeing such a dramatic increase in myopia, and what are some of the actions that could be taken to help cope with this epidemic?
It is a proven fact in the medical field that Asians are more likely to be myopic. Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for the increase in myopia is digitization. In addition, the increase in myopia in children has become a social issue due to online classes during the COVID pandemic and the widespread use of smartphones. To address this issue, we believe it is imperative for the entire Menicon Group to quickly realize initiatives to protect children's eyesight and take on new challenges by utilizing our unique technologies, know-how, and human resources.
Many physicians in the medical field did not believe that myopia was a disease. Recently, however, an increasing number of doctors believe otherwise and are trying to understand the mechanisms that cause myopia.
Since ancient times, myopia has been treated as a ‘modern’ disease, something that is inevitable for people of culture. Although the mechanism of myopia is known, we believe that research and clarification of the mechanism that causes myopia will establish specific treatment methods.
With the technological revolution the world has been undergoing, we have been blessed with smartphones, tablets and computers, which have changed how we live. Although this screen lifestyle has been a factor in the myopia epidemic, these technologies are indispensable to our daily lives and essential to how things operate, making it difficult for people to avoid using screens entirely. In your opinion, how are we able to strike a balance with screens while also reducing the chances of myopia?
In my opinion, it is difficult to balance screens while reducing the possibility of myopia. I am not a doctor but being a little nearsighted does not completely seem to be a bad thing. However, I do believe that prevention of myopia is necessary because its progression can lead to serious complications and other eye diseases if it becomes severe.
Orthokeratology lenses are a surgery-free treatment for myopia, and they are a form of contact lens with high oxygen permeability and specially shaped anterior corneal surface, which patients wear during their sleep that allows them to go without corrective eyewear during the day. Can you give us a breakdown of how your orthokeratology lenses help treat myopia? What benefits do these lenses have compared to other treatments, such as regular contact lenses, glasses or even LASIK?
In the past, orthokeratology was a means of correcting myopia, but around 2010, it began to be proposed as a means of controlling the progression of myopia, and since then, it has attracted attention and grown rapidly in use.
It is known that the distance from the front surface of the cornea to the retina, or the ocular axis, increases as myopia progresses. It was previously believed that people only see things at the macula near the center of the retina, but it is now known that people actually see at the periphery of the retina as well, and that this effect causes the ocular axis to gradually elongate as myopia progresses. Orthokeratology lenses are known to slow the elongation of the axis and inhibit ocular axis hyperextension, thereby slowing the progression of myopia.
At present, multifocal soft contact lenses, multifocal spectacles, and eye drops are being studied as methods of controlling myopia, but it has been reported that orthokeratology is more effective than the above methods in suppressing ocular axis over-elongation.
In the next 5-10 years, the mechanism of myopia will be further elucidated. As this becomes clearer, we can find better ways to control myopia, learn more about the effects of orthokeratology, and improve lens design. Therefore, I believe it is imperative that we continue to update our progress and research so that we can incorporate new information into our products.
High myopia can lead to other serious eye conditions such as detached retinas, cataracts or glaucoma, all of which can result in permanent loss of vision. Is Alpha Corporation looking to develop technologies that can help treat more serious eye conditions?
With regard to development, I feel that the weakness of small and medium-sized enterprises is that they cannot invest sufficiently in basic research. For companies like ours that cannot do basic research, industry-academia collaboration is desirable, but the problem is that we cannot proceed with research and development with a set goal in the short term.
In the future, the R&D department of Menicon will be at the center of development. However, since we entered this industry earlier than other companies, we have a wealth of knowledge. We believe it is important to share this knowledge and expertise within the group, especially with regard to lens design and development. We aim to develop by utilizing all the resources of the Menicon Group.
Japan is seeing an increase in myopia among children; 34% of elementary school children have an unaided decimal visual acuity of less than one. Japan's demographic situation, with fewer children being born each year, is creating a shrinking domestic market because it means fewer myopic cases to treat with orthokeratology lenses from which data can be acquired to figure out how myopia works. What are some of the challenges and opportunities this demographic shift is presenting for Alpha Corporation?
While the number of children in Japan is decreasing due to population decline and aging, the number of people suffering from myopia is increasing. In addition, parents' reactions toward their children's myopia seem to be changing. Orthokeratology in the treatment of myopia control has just begun to spread in the Japanese market, so we do not think it will be affected much by the population decline.
We are committed to addressing the social issue of children's loss of vision in our rapidly accelerating digital society. We remain focused on how orthokeratology can contribute to solving that problem.
What role do collaboration and co-creation play in your business model? Are you currently looking for any overseas partners?
In the myopia control business, which is a healthcare area, building and expanding the sales channel base is an important issue. It is necessary to create effective synergies within the group to expand sales of orthokeratology lenses and build a sales network.
We will differentiate ourselves from other companies and establish our position by providing consistent and comprehensive products and services specialized in orthokeratology from a technical, regulatory, and service perspective. We are a member of the Menicon Group and have sales offices around the world. They are key partners in selling our products.
Your lenses are exported to many locations with growing myopia cases across the world, including China, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Australia. However, we are seeing similar trends in the western hemisphere. In the US, myopia affects 5% of preschool children, 9% of school-aged children and 30% of adolescents, and in Europe, 47.2% of those aged between 25 and 29 were affected by the condition. Are you looking to further expand to regions or countries, like the US or Europe, where myopia continues to grow? What strategies will you employ to do so?
The entire Menicon Group is working on projects to control the progression of myopia. As Alpha Corporation, our main target remains China, followed by Southeast Asia, South Korea and Australia. The problem is that ophthalmic infrastructure is still inadequate in some countries. In order to prescribe orthokeratology lenses, the patient must be checked with a corneal topography device, but some clinics and facilities in these countries do not have corneal topography equipment. In other words, even if the lenses were approved for sale, the ophthalmic infrastructure is inadequate, making it difficult to promote the lenses in these countries.
However, Southeast Asian countries are a huge market with a population of over 600 million. We believe that ophthalmic infrastructure will improve in the next 5 to 10 years. We have only just begun to introduce our products into these markets, but after China, our next targets are South Korea, Southeast Asia, and Australia.
We would also like to address European countries and the United States, but as a Menicon Group policy, Menicon will be responsible for those markets.
Imagine we come back in three years and have this interview all over again. What would you like to have accomplished by then?
This year marks the 52nd anniversary of our company's founding. I joined Menicon in 1989 and have been in the industry for almost 33 years. Three years after Alpha Corporation became part of the Menicon Group in 2016, I became President of Alpha. I have worked with Menicon's corporate culture for a long time. Alpha has over 50 years of culture and history, but I feel that culture has not taken root. Many of our employees are hired mid-career based on their existing skills, so that may be a factor.
We celebrated our 50th anniversary in 2020, and as a starting point for becoming a 100-year company over the next 10, 20, and even 100 years, we have set forth our management philosophy and vision, both for our founder's vision for the company and for the future growth of the company. We have also launched a project to spread this philosophy and vision throughout the company.
In three years' time, we hope that this philosophy and vision will have permeated each and every employee, that each and every one of them will have enhanced their expertise, that they will all have a challenging and creative spirit, and that they will be a company where the key to management is "people" and where each and every employee will work hard to achieve the best performance possible. We aim to be a company in which each employee is motivated to perform to the best of his or her ability.
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