The Tel Aviv startup has developed an innovative lens implant that could help cataract patients see like teenagers. The potential market is huge
Back in 2001, working out of a garage north of Tel Aviv that doubled as a laboratory, Joshua Ben-nun came up with an audacious thought. With the right kind of eye implant, he wondered, why couldn't any middle-aged person see as well as or better than he did in his teens?
The idea set the now-53-year-old ophthalmologist on a six-year quest to develop a flexible lens that could change its curvature in sync with the movements of the eye muscle. The company he founded, NuLens, Ltd, now has successfully carried out its first clinical trials in Spain for the new lens and is hoping to launch commercial sales within two years.
The Israeli startup initially is focusing on the fast-growing market for intraocular lens implants used in cataract surgery. Ten million cataract operations are conducted annually in the U.S. and Europe alone, making it the most common surgical procedure. The operation involves installing a new lens to remove the blurred vision associated with cataracts, typically in patients over 65.
Greater Field of Vision
What sets apart the NuLens technology is a combination of design and placement. Whereas most lenses currently on the market are rigid and flat, the new Israeli device is soft and curved, made from flexible plastic coated in silicon gel, and measures only about a millimeter thick. Even more unusually, the lens is installed on the outside of the eye's capsular bag—which is just behind the iris—instead of inside the bag, as is the case with existing products.
"Our technology enhances vision along the entire spectrum, while the lenses used today offer only limited improvement," says Ben-nun, who now acts as NuLens' chief scientific officer. In fact, he says, the improvement can be so dramatic that most patients are likely to have 20-20 vision or close to it after the procedure.
At first, Ben-nun had a hard time convincing the medical community his novel idea would work. But now there's a growing number of converts. "It's a brilliant concept and the only device out there that gives adequate focus for near-sightedness to avoid eye strain and reading fatigue," says I. Howard Fine, clinical professor of ophthalmology at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, who has tested the NuLens product.
New Kid on the Block
Initial trials on monkeys conducted in Spain and in Wisconsin helped prove the concept. The first human trials late last year were performed on 10 patients in Spain, all of whom suffered from advanced macular degeneration—a far more debilitating condition than cataracts—which afflicts the elderly and leads to blindness. "All of the patients showed a marked improvement after implanting the NuLens prototype," says Jorge Alio, medical director at Vissum, an ophthalmology center in Alicante.
The Israeli upstart, based in Herzliya, won't have the field all to itself. It's entering a business currently dominated by three big players: Alcon (ACL), Advanced Medical Optics (EYE), and Eyeonics. The three together have a 90% share of the market, and all have introduced new lenses in the past year that sell on average for $900 each. Still, says NuLens Chief Executive Officer Ori Gal, a former Israeli investment banker and technology executive who co-founded the company, "We may be the new guy on the block, but our novel approach will enable us to capture a substantial chunk of the market."
A study by Market Scope, a St. Louis ophthalmology market research firm, sees the global market for intraocular implants nearly doubling, to $2.6 billion in 2012. Much of the growth, Market Scope predicts, will come from new technologies that eliminate the need for glasses. That opportunity has attracted other startup activity, as well. Two California-based companies, PowerVision and Visiogen, are in hot in pursuit of therapies for cataracts and other eye problems, though many experts in the field say the NuLens solution is the most innovative so far.
To finance its research and development, NuLens has already raised $20 million from New York-based investment bank Warburg Pincus, Israeli high-tech holding company Elron Electronic Industries (ELRN), and private investors. NuLens hopes to receive regulatory approval in the European Union in 2009. To meet the target of launching sales in less than two years, the company is planning to double its workforce, which now stands at 17.
More clinical trials are planned for the coming year in Spain, Germany, and Mexico. Due to the stricter Federal Drug Administration regulatory process, NuLens doesn't expect to be selling in the U.S. until 2012. But by then, the Israeli startup hopes proven success in Europe will help the company see its way into the U.S. market.