Google, Novartis ready to make reading glasses obsolete

July 17, 2014, 7:35 PM UTC
Mark Serr—Google

Pharmaceuticals have entered the digital age, and they aren’t looking back.

Novartis said Tuesday it is teaming up with Google[x] (GOOG), 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?

I think it’s important that the partnership is starting with the eye, which is really the natural window into the body’s overall health. But, moving beyond the eye, Novartis is clearly a leader globally in a number of therapeutic areas.

One of those that we’re a leader in is oncology, or the treatment for cancer, and there could be other opportunities in the future in that space. There could be other opportunities in heart failure. We’ve got a pretty incredible pipeline that’s looking to address people with chronic heart failure and a number of conditions right now where there’s a pretty high medical need.

What will be the biggest challenge incorporating the technology into Alcon’s own product development?

From the technical challenge perspective, you know, this isn’t easy. You’re talking about layering in sensors and miniature wireless chips and microchips. Then, how do you ensure on the gluco-sensing smart lens that there’s a correlation between the sugar glucose and the blood glucose, plus a number of other things that we need to prove clinically.

So, I think there are both technical challenges, which is really where Google excels, and there’s also clinical challenges, which is really where Novartis and Alcon excel.

Do you see more partnerships like this happening in the future between technology and pharmaceutical companies?

I do see an increasing convergence in technology and healthcare, and I think technology companies are looking for new sources of growth but also new ways in which they can really impact the world.

As Sergey [Brin] said in his quote yesterday, this has the potential to help millions of people around the world. There’s a real mission component to this for us on the Novartis and the Alcon side, and I think that’s true for Google as well, though I wouldn’t want to speak for them.

[Google] recognizes that they are the natural owners for certain capabilities and certain competencies, but really it’s going to be best for them to partner and to find a symbiotic relationship that they can develop. There was a very competitive process that they ran. They had a number of key selection criteria, and ultimately the match ended up being right between Google and Novartis.

How do you see the intersection of tech and pharma transforming the healthcare industry in the future?

Frankly, in many top healthcare companies there’s a huge technological component. If you talk to Mark Fishman, who is the president of our Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, big data and the data revolution that’s happening are instrumental to a lot of our research activities within Novartis.

One of the elements is how people are able to leverage and harness big data. A second element is what they can do with it then and how that enables personalization in medicine, whether it be in oncology or in other indications.

There’s also this consumer piece of it, which is enabling consumers to take more control of their own healthcare. In the past you used to have to go to a doctor to do a lot of the testing that today can be done wirelessly and remotely.

I think we’ll see more medical device companies and pharma companies that are interested in moving into the data realm because it gives them greater insight from a patient perspective into developing better medicines.