A vision of the future: smart contact lenses to treat patients with iris disorders and light sensitivity

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A woman opens her front door and looks to the sky to judge the weather. It’s sunny and inside her contact lenses, tiny microchips switch on layers of liquid crystals to protect her eyes from the bright light. Satisfied she won’t need a raincoat, the woman steps onto the street and goes about her day. It might sound like the start of a sci-fi novel, but this is the reality of Azalea Vision’s smart tech.

By Amy LeBlanc

Founded as a joint spin-off from imec and Ghent University, Belgian start-up Azalea Vision is pioneering smart solutions for people with iris disorders and light sensitivity. The HealthTech company closed a €8 million Series A in July 2021, with the support of an international investor syndicate including imec.xpand, Elaia, Sensinnovat, and Shigeru, as well as a research grant from VLAIO.

Azalea Vision is using the funds to further develop its smart contact lens for patients with certain iris disorders (such as aniridia or coloboma) or high light sensitivity (experienced by chronic migraine patients, for example). The lens is composed of several layers, with the outermost performing the functions of a normal contact lens, such as correcting vision in people who have issues such as myopia, astigmatism, or others. Far more unique is the ALMA smart tech hidden inside the lens, behind the custom-printed iris. Co-founder and CTO Andrés Vásquez Quintero explains how the innovative technology works:

“In the ALMA smart platform, light receptors in a tiny flexible microchip detect the brightness in a person’s surroundings. If the light is bright enough to reach a set threshold, the chip – powered by a micro-battery – activates liquid crystals in the pupil area of the lens, which filter the incoming light.”

Azalea Vision smart contact lens 

Image: The structure of Azalea Vision’s smart contact lens, showing the ALMA smart platform.

Personalized programming

This cutting-edge combination – a smart platform housed inside a contact lens – is a world-first. By combining the two, Azalea Vision is developing an active light management system that can adapt to environmental light conditions automatically and in real-time, responding in a matter of milliseconds (even faster than biological reaction times). The programming is customizable, Andrés Vásquez Quintero says, so the lenses can be tailored to each patient’s specific needs:

“The micro-batteries last for a full day; at night you charge the battery inside the contact lenses in a small box filled with a cleaning solution. While there, you can program the lens settings using a small interface in the box, or with a smartphone connected to the system. The personalization is important, as patients have different perceptions of what qualifies as ‘bright’ light.”

A smart solution for patients in need

The potential applications for this smart tech are numerous, including as non-medical consumer products, but Azalea Vision will initially focus on two main patient populations. The first consists of people with photophobia (extreme sensitivity to light), such as chronic migraine patients whose attacks are triggered by bright light. Current options for these patients include one-size-fits-all sunglasses or photochromic contact lenses that take several minutes to become opaque.

“Worldwide, more than 25 million people suffer from high light sensitivity and ocular disorders.” – Enrique Vega, Azalea Vision

The second group consists of people with iris disorders. The colored iris is the thin muscular membrane that controls the diameter of the pupil, and thus the amount of light reaching the retina. For patients with ocular disorders such as aniridia or coloboma, the iris is missing or abnormally shaped and can’t perform its proper function. Currently, the only solution for these patients is an implanted iris – an invasive procedure listed as a ‘humanitarian device exemption’ by the FDA, for lack of better alternatives.

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Enrique Vega, co-founder, and CEO of Azalea Vision, is positive the company’s smart tech solution can significantly improve millions of patients’ quality of life:

“Worldwide, more than 25 million people suffer from high light sensitivity and ocular disorders. In just Europe, the USA, and Japan, the potential market size for our product equates to more than three billion euro per year, with patients’ needs currently not met by existing options. Our technology provides a differentiated solution for people with iris disorders, as the concentric ring segments in the pupil area can be turned on or off in sequence to mimic the natural contraction and dilation of the pupil. For people with photophobia, we can protect them from bright light by programming the lenses to change the whole pupil area in response to specific light intensities.”

Technologies coming together

Following its successful funding round, Azalea Vision is now hard at work finalizing the product development, preparing the manufacturing of clinical units, and expanding the team. With things moving fast, Andrés Vásquez Quintero muses on the elements that have made this futuristic technology possible:

“This product originated at imec and Ghent University, where we were working on several different lines of technologies, including liquid crystals, data transmission, and stretchable electronics. We were able to combine these into one innovative application, but even ten years ago, these smart lenses would have been impossible. The individual technologies simply weren’t advanced enough – we didn’t have an energy source small enough to put into a lens, for example. The public funding we received was very important in enabling this technological momentum: without the money and time afforded to us by those grants, we wouldn’t have been able to develop this unique solution for patients in need.”

“By integrating a battery and smart tech into a contact lens, we have created a platform technology which is unique in the world of medical devices.” – Enrique Vega, Azalea Vision

Enrique Vega feels the technology has incredible potential for the future:

“The combination of advanced technologies is what’s special about Azalea Vision. By integrating a battery and smart tech into a contact lens, we have created a platform technology which is unique in the world of medical devices. With this first product, we are managing light intensity, but our platform will evolve and open doors to a lot of other applications, leading to a whole pipeline of products. I’m sure we haven’t even begun to imagine how this technology can be used to help people around the world.”

This article was sponsored by Azalea Vision. If you’re interested in a sponsored article to showcase your innovation, get in touch!