Pharmaceuticals have entered the digital age, and they aren’t looking back.
Novartis said Tuesday it is teaming up with Google[x] GOOG -1.53% , the search company’s research arm, to launch smart lens technology.
The move is only the start of a healthcare revolution. There’s Google glasses in operating rooms, a prescription-only smart phone app and, in the not-so-far future, contact lenses that can read blood-sugar levels — a revolution for diabetics, who today must either prick their own fingers or wear a subcutaneous monitoring device.
Fortune talked with Jeff George, the global head of Alcon — the Novartis subsidiary that is working hand-in-hand with Google innovators to bring smart lenses to market — about the intersection of healthcare and technology, and what could lie ahead for the pharmaceutical industry.
George came on board to lead the contact-maker on May 1, and already in his two and a half months on the job he’s helped to land the Google[x] partnership and is planning out how Alcon can leverage this miniature technology to transform everyday health. (Think: no more reading glasses!)
How did the partnership between Google[x] and Alcon come about?
Joe [Jimenez, Novartis CEO] had had conversations back at the beginning of the year just prior to Google announcing that they were moving forward with their gluco-sensing smart lens, and we had an opportunity prior to my joining to show them our facilities. They were pretty impressed with the capabilities that we had.
One of the things I’m trying to do at Alcon just having taken over May 1 is really stimulate and galvanize the culture of innovation. We’re really looking for the best ideas whether they are internal or external. There’s been a tremendous amount of innovation in Alcon that’s enabled us to grow from a $350 million company in 1984 to $10.5 billion last year. And at the same time I wanted to make sure we’re exposing our people to inspiration outside of our industry.
I see an increasing convergence between technology and healthcare and the speed at which [Google] is prototyping products really blew me away, so this is something that really resonated with my team. It’s not a traditional way of looking at healthcare, even within medical devices, to really partner with a top technology company.
What aspect of the “smart lens” technology excites you most?
Presbyopia. You have close to 2 billion people who have difficulty reading, whether it’s an iPad or a book, and really want freedom from readers and from eyeglasses. That’s really something that’s exciting for us.
Effectively the way the technology works is that you have photo diodes which are sensors that are embedded into the contact lens that interact with the amount of light that is coming into the eye and interact with your down-gaze or your up-gaze, which controls how much light is coming in based on where your eyelid is. The sensor technology is able then to wirelessly send a signal to a liquid crystal, which is embedded between two layers of a contact lens. Then that liquid crystal would adjust for either looking out in distance or looking in near field. That technology is something that’s really really quite interesting to us.
Our hope is that as the leaders in surgical equipment and devices for cataracts and refractive surgery globally, we could ultimately develop this also for intra-ocular lenses, which is a big business for us. Our cataract business is over $3 billion in size.
So, the potential for this could go much further?
It does. We licensed the smart lens technology on an exclusive basis for all ocular uses. We’re very focused on bringing to market the gluco-sensing smart lens for diabetics and auto-focus technology for presbyopics–like my parents and in a few years myself. But at the same time, there are other ocular indications.
There’s about 60 million people around the world who have glaucoma, and this sensing smart-lens technology could continuously monitor intra-operative eye pressure, which is what is controlled by medicines that treat glaucoma like prostaglandins. Before its patent expired, Xalatan [a prostaglandin] was a product worth a couple of billon dollars to Pfizer.
Are there other areas where you could see this technology transforming healthcare?